On the Shabbat following the Supreme Court Decision relative to Roe v Wade two different approaches were featured in the sermons of mainstream rabbis. One approach was a call for immediate action. We can’t sand still when our country is like one that devours its inhabitants. The other approach called for taking a Sabbath rest. With so many fires to put out we cannot now know in which direction to throw our individual buckets of water. Though opinions diverged as to how to react, doubtless we live in disturbing times where people’s emotions run from depressing to devastating. What to do? What not to do? Wisdom seems to take a vacation when the mind is clouded by confusion or fueled by anger and the urge to fight or flee.
When one is agitated, not at peace, therapists often recommend the exercise of mindful meditation techniques. So do many rabbis of renown, particularly Rabbi Nachman who was often disturbed. He is said to have spent many hours each day in solitude, talking to God as a friend. This sometimes included mentally shouting a “silent scream” when peaceful solutions were not to be found. Reb Nachman is often quoted as having said: You can shout loudly in a “small still voice”… Anyone can do this. Just imagine the sound of such a scream in your mind. Depict the shout in your imagination exactly as it would sound. Keep this up until you are literally screaming with this soundless “small still voice.”
Easier said than done. Though we may feel like screaming, we are not Rabbi Nachman, and mainstream Judaism is not exactly known for teaching meditation. There is reason for this. The Judaism we know is rabbinic Judaism which is based on action. One is as one does, and we are judged by both God and humanity by our behavior. For generations Jews have held that by following God’s commands, by doing Mitzvoth that we, our families, and the world will be the better for it. This appears to be in direct contrast to ancient Hindu wisdom, as modified Buddhism: that it is in escaping from the vicissitudes of daily living that the sole route to genuine fulfillment is found. Eastern meditation, where the goal is to transcend thought and mind so as to ascend to a higher state, is practiced by sitting still and not observing surroundings.
This is not the kind of Sabbath rest our rabbis call for. Shabbat rest requires vision of a world as God made it and means it to be, a world of natural beauty filled with the Shalom of God and the peace and good will that is the potential of humanity. The Jewish Sabbath requires looking inward, but also outward at all that is in order to see and to preserve that which is good.
Recently the spirituality movement in Judaism has incorporated some meditative practices from the East and also from the fringes of our own mystics. However, the goal is not to escape from life but to better it. Mindfulness is what psychology calls this type of meditation, also commonly called western or active meditation. It involves being patient and compassionate with self while observing life as it is happening. It can be done sitting in stillness, or practiced anywhere while doing anything, so long as the mind is singularly focused. It involves paying attention to the moment, being aware of body and emotions, and, without trying to change anything, experiencing gratitude for breath, for being alive, and saying here I am to whomever and whatever the day brings. Words are quick, but, like Eastern meditation, Western meditation takes practice. It requires the ability to retreat to stillness before action. It may mean taking mini-sabbaths every day.
Through mindfulness one attains wisdom and knows how to act when action is called for. Practicing awareness is vitally important in times when people are troubled. Lacking awareness, we have no recourse but to dwell in darkness, frozen in place, or feebly flailing about in futile attempts to reach and react with others.
Both rabbinic positions are correct. We have no choice but to act in a timely decisive manner when the circumstances are such that our rights and the rights of others are at stake. Now is the time to also practice active meditation to assure that we are wise in the way we choose to ensure our personal equanimity and pursue justice throughout our land.
Lee J. Richmond, PhD, is a licensed psychologist in the State of Maryland. She is a professor emerita of Loyola University Maryland. and former professor of counseling and human development at the John Hopkins University. Additionally, she has been a human resources consultant and leadership development trainer for national and international organizations including the United States Postal Service and Recruit Ltd. Japan. She is widely published in books, monographs and journals. Dr. Richmond is known for blending her interest in the nexus between psychology and spirituality, Dr. Richmond holds a Ph.D. from the University of Maryland. She is a mother, grandmother, and great-grandmother.