Jewish Meditation and Hitbonanut
By Rami Allon
In recent past years there has been a desire on the part of many people to put meditation and mysticism together. Most of these people are those who had found their way into eastern religions and subsequently returned to their Jewish roots. They seek to continue their meditative practices within the framework of Judaism.
They have found that meditation has answered their needs for relaxation. For others meditation fulfills many of their desires to transcend the physicality of the world. Through meditation they feel that they can achieve a Oneness with G-d. Many are disappointed to find that there does not exist in the mainstream traditional Jewish world an equal (or substitute) to their meditative experience which they have acquired from other sources.
There has even begun a covert process to "kosher" meditation by claiming that such a thing has always existed in the frame work of Jewish thought. Most of their claims are based on the equating a process known as "Hitbonanut" to meditation.
Hitbonanut is a mental process similar in some ways to meditation, but with certain particular and important differences, as will be explained.
Hitbonanut is mentioned by none other than the famous Rambam in his lofty book, the Sefer HaMitzvot, which was written some 800 hundred years ago, which enumerates and lists the 613 mitzvoth. In the third positive mitzvah, the mitzvah to love G-d, the Rambam explains that to properly love G-d one must utilize Hitbonanut, contemplation and reflection, in order to bring oneself to the true level of love for G-d. With out this Hitbonanut, this contemplation, the Rambam explains, one can never properly reach the appropriate level of love of G-d that man is capable of reaching.
Later in Chassidic and mystical thought, we find that the spiritual creator of Chabad Chassidic thought, Rabbi Shneor Zalman writes about htibonanut in his classic epic the Tanya. This book was published some two hundred years ago. His son and successor, Rabbi Dov Ber, wrote two pertinent essays entitled "Kuntress Hitpalalut" and "Shaar Yechud" which develop the concepts of htibonanut that are mentioned in the Tanya in a very detailed manner.
Hitbonanut, as explained by Rabbi Dov Ber, is an extremely active process that utilizes the energies of the mental facilities to expand on a thought dealing with G-d. The great concentration and deep contemplation required for this activity expands not just the thinker's knowledge base of G-d, but can also bring him into having a G-dly experience. As an offshoot of such an intense mental activity and deep thought, man is brought much closer to G-d, both intellectually and emotionally. He begins to feel G-d's presence in the world with him.
This activity is predicated upon much prior study of the ways of G-d; understanding Him as He is manifest through out the various worlds and as He is to Himself, meaning in His essence. Utilizing deep thinking skills and concentration, the thinker expands on various topics related to G-d, as an example: "nothing exists except for G-d". Through the active thinking process, he must work out in his mind how this can be. With all of the various ramifications and implications of his thoughts, the thinker losses himself into his thoughts. In the development of his ideas, he increases his understanding of G-d's workings in the world. From his own conclusions, the thinker's own love and fear of the Creator are animated and intensified.
In this procedure, the thinker not only comes closer to G-d, but his awareness of G-d in the world in increased greatly. However, as mentioned above, this is based on a very active thinking process. It requires much effort and concentration for the thinker to make any progress. It is not a passive process; the passive process meaning slowing down the mind, calming it from the outside stimuli.
Meditation on the other hand, is a different process. In most meditation, the mind is slowed down. The meditator is trying to stop his constant thinking process so that he may experience the fruits of his meditation, a calm feeling, a relaxation or even a feeling of his personal transcendence in relation to the surrounding world. In most meditation, the concept is that we must strip the mind of its constant motion, its continuous mental thrashing, so that an "insight" may come into the mind.
In truth, this type of meditation does not need to be "koshered". Much meditative exercises are not idolatrous. As long as the practitioner does not get involved in the religious aspects and teachings that the various eastern religions offer, there is nothing wrong with employing meditative techniques to relax. It is, however, advantageous that the difference between htibonanut and meditation be made clear.
It is only when one tries to equate passive meditation with active Hitbonanut, then there is the danger that practitioner will lose his ability to improve his relationship to G-d through correct Hitbonanut, which as already stated, brings one closer to G-d. This mistake is one that a sincere person desiring closeness to G-d will try to avoid at all costs.
from the April 1999 Edition of the Jewish Magazine