Jewish Mindfulness

In the 1960’s and 1970’s, Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach went into the ashrams and Buddhist temples of San Francisco, which were filled with young Jews among many others, and began singing with people.  Many Jewish young adults had become completely turned off by the institutions in their own religion, and had gone seeking spirituality and community elsewhere, and Carlebach’s personal mission was to bring them home.

In the mid-1970’s he literally did that with a group of his followers that founded Moshav Mevo Modi’in, situated in the hills outside the town of Modi’in bordering the West Bank between Tel Aviv and Jerusalem.  Today there remains a small but highly spiritual community in that Moshav, and the original founders’ children and grandchildren are among those responsible for the widespread resurgence in neo-Chasidut, an approach to Jewish living that includes a significant focus on mindfulness, meditation, music, and spiritually ecstatic prayer experiences.

During the course of my doctoral research in Anthropology, I spent several weeks living on that Moshav in 2009, conducting ethnographic research and learning about a fascinating sub-culture of Judaism.  I have never been hugged by so many strangers in my entire life, though of course a community like that doesn’t consider you a stranger for more than a few seconds.  Carlebach was unique in many ways, and one way that got him ostracized by the Chabad movement in which he grew up was his willingness to allow women’s voices to be heard (both literally and figuratively).  He also was open to learning from other religious traditions, and recognized in some of them significant similarities with the Mussar movement started in the 19th century by Rabbi Israel Salanter.

I am fascinated by Mussar, and I am particularly energized by the idea that there is a Jewish method for spiritual and ethical growth that requires a combination of study and action/practice.  It is nice to learn a page of Talmud, but unless you can put it into practice in your life, most people just aren’t that interested.  Modern Mussar begins with text study around specific Midot (personal characteristics), but moves quickly to daily practice in which the goal is to notice our tendencies in real time, and to try to employ mindfulness to help us move through choice points intentionally, rather than automatically.

Here is a real-life example many parents will recognize.  I get frustrated with my 8-year-old when she leaves her clothing on the floor of my bathroom after taking a shower in there.  Normally, upon encountering those clothes on the floor, I will call to her to come pick them up with obvious frustration in my voice, and I will remain agitated and annoyed for the next several minutes at least, especially if this process creates delay in an already stressful and rushed morning of preparing to go to school.  When I breathe for a moment, and remember that this behavior is completely normal for a child her age, and then even take a moment to be grateful that I have a healthy, normal, developing child in my home…I still get to hold her accountable to pick up her clothing, but my approach and emotional state is completely different, and I’m sure she can tell the difference.

The midah (characteristic) I am practicing in that example is called savlanut (patience).  It’s a big one for parents and educators.  In Mussar we usually only focus our practice on a single midah at a time, so that we can see and feel progress, and begin to create lasting habits.  This Shabbat, I encourage you to sit down with your loved ones and take a look at this video (also embedded below), and also at the wonderful resources in this link.

Shabbat Shalom,