This week's portion: on grain and offerings

Mindful Jewish Living

A while back I received a pre-publication copy of Mindful Jewish Living: Compassionate Practice, a new book from Aviv Press by Rabbi Jonathan P. Slater. (Read an interview with him about the book here.) The Foreword to the book is by Sylvia Boorstein; it offers a good encapsulation of what we will find in the pages to come. She writes:

This is a book about looking with your own eyes -- looking with all the organs of physical sensation as well as the mind and heart -- looking with full attention at every moment so that life is continually revealed as sacred, inspiring a just and compassionate response. And it is most particularly a book that celebrates looking with eyes that are directed, supported, nourished, encouraged, and informed by Judaism.

R' Slater spends a lot of time, early in the book, talking about mindfulness: what it is, why it's important, how to experience it Judaically. He defines mindfulness as "the capacity to see clearly, with calm and awakened mind and heart, the truth of each moment of our lives." Who could fail to connect with that aspiration?  "When I see my life with the greatest clarity, I experience the presence of God in each moment, even in pain and failure," he writes. "I feel joy in being an expression of God's intent in creation." I like that as a description of the peculiar grounded joy I sometimes find in hospital chaplaincy work, a joy that can be puzzling. When I look at it through R' Slater's description, it makes sense in a new way.

Mindfulness, R' Slater writes, isn't just a habit of navel-gazing. It's a practice, a discipline, which helps us look beyond our particular reality to see the reality of all life. Many of us may have found our way to meditation or to mindfulness practice via Buddhism, but R' Slater makes the apt point that Jewish practice too is a mindfulness regimen. Through the matrix of mitzvot we can become conscious of every action; through making brachot we sanctify what we do. "Mindfulness as a practice leads to a life of constant teshuvah -- return to the truth of the moment."

Mindful Jewish Living is organized topically, with sections on Meditation, Torah, Avodah ("Service," though it's also often translated as "Prayer"), Hesed ("Lovingkindness") and Teshuvah ("Return"). The book doesn't read like a textbook, but it's surprisingly dense; I could easily derive a long blog post from each chapter, and at some point maybe I will. For now, some little tastes -- dips of honey to entice you to buy the whole jar.

In the chapter on meditation, R' Slater offers a simple introduction to mindfulness meditation, instructing the reader on how to engage in simple contemplative practice by focusing on the breath. (Most readers of this book may already be familiar with the practice, but he does a nice job of explaining it in a way that would be clear to a novice and familiar to a practitioner.) He notes, too, that the basic elements of this exercise -- "pay attention, sense changes, note resistances, rededicate onself to pursue an intention, etc." -- are the same ones that mark a mindful life. "Mindfulness practice demands that we constantly seek to be aware of the truth of our very existence, to know God," he writes. "Whenever we awaken to that truth, we experience Revelation, the appearance of God in our lives."

It's clear that though R' Slater is not himself a Hasid, he has found much that is valuable in the teachings of Hasidism. He writes, "The absolute monism of hasidism, its claim that there is nothing but God, enlivens me. God is not outside the world -- God is the world; the world is in God." I'm reminded of the Slonimer Rebbe's assertion that we are all always already in devekut, oneness or a state of cleaving/union, with God, if only we will open our eyes to see so!

R' Slater unpacks a series of excerpts from Hasidic texts to great effect. Some of the quoted text illustrates the connection between our bodies and Torah. Some of it explores the idea of cleaving to God through emulating God's attributes. One particularly powerful passage looks at the oft-repeated commandment to remember our slavery in Egypt, and interprets that as an exhortation to bring God's qualities out of exile by acting wisely and mindfully and in accordance with God's will. This is good stuff, and R' Slater teaches it well.

One of my favorite moments in the book comes when R' Slater explores the story of God denying Moses entry into the Promised Land. He finds in that story a deep teaching about mortality, accomplishment, and deriving meaning from our limitations. R' Slater writes:

No one can expect to attain the promised land in his or her lifetime. That seems to be the message of the Torah. Life is a long journey that ultimately is completed only in death. The goal of the journey, the final fulfillment of aspiration, may never be achieved. Therefore, if satisfaction is to come in life, it must be in the course of living, in the choosing of life.

He moves from there into descriptions of moments of encounter with congregants who have lost loved ones. "How is it that we actually survive loss, tragedy, suffering, pain?" he writes. "What are we to do when our world crumbles as one of its pillars is removed?... Why is there a world at all when our hearts are broken?" Even my scant nine months of hospital chaplaincy work have made these questions familiar to me. R' Slater articulates them beautifully.

Repeatedly he stresses that mindfulness practice, while in some ways interior and personal, reaches completion when that internal work is turned outward and shapes the way we interact with the wider world. "Mindfulness practice does require that we pay close attention to the workings of our minds and hearts; it does have that internal focus. The purpose of that investigation, however, is so that we will be better able to sustain an open heart while living fully in the world."

In the section labeled "Avodah" ("Service," or perhaps "Prayer," depending), he describes the challenge of paying real and ongoing attention during meditation. Then he writes:

This challenge is one that I also face daily when I pray. I want to be able to express each word of prayer with my full intention. I want to mean what I say; I want to know what I mean; and I want to say what I mean. And, I want to be able to pray this way while using the words of the traditional prayerbook -- so I want to bring my attention fully to those texts, to know what they mean, and to mean what they say, and to have them say what I mean. And, I want to pray without being distracted, without my mind wandering elsewhere. At the same time I also want to be aware of what it is that distracts me, so that I can learn the content of my own heart and mind. If I can do this in prayer, then perhaps I will be able to do it in the fullness of my life as well -- and, so, live mindfully aware of the truth of my life.

Tell me about it! I had to laugh when I read that paragraph. He's turning in circles trying to articulate what he wants to get out of Jewish prayer, and I know those circles well. He explores the reason for having set liturgy, alongside the Talmudic sages' concerns that having a set liturgy would cause our prayer lives to calcify. And -- well, okay, I'll make a separate post about the Avodah section one of these days, because it's way up my alley.

I'm 1300 words in to this post and I haven't even touched the pile of quotations I drew from the second half of the book. Maybe I should have stuck with the short version of my review, which would have said something like, This is a smart and thoughtful book which rings true with me on a lot of levels. If you're already interested in the intersection of Judaism and contemplative practice, this is a good addition to your bookshelf; if you're not, this might be a good place to start.

I'll close with one of my favorite one-liners from the book: "Every moment is a potential meeting with God." That's at the heart of mindful Jewish living -- and of Mindful Jewish Living, too.

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