Book Review: Jews take a fiery approach to meditation, author says

When Avram Davis began discussing Jewish meditation five years ago, some thought the Berkeley resident was preaching Buddhism, some thought he was preaching Christianity, some thought he was preaching evil.

Now people are no longer hostile, he said. Jewish meditation "is growing very quickly, but starting from a very small seed."

That's because we live in a stressful world, where "everyone I know has two or three jobs," he said. And meditation may bring relief.

"People will need the power of meditation, the quietude that meditation brings," he said. Meditation can bring them back to a more balanced, spiritual focus.

His new book "The Way of Flame" provides a general, layperson's guide to the immensely deep tradition of Jewish meditation.

"I believe it will be re-integrated into mainstream synagogues. People have a great need for meditation, as great if not greater than prayer."

The book takes a non-academic path to that source of solace. "I tried to deal with questions people have in real life, and how they [meditate] if they're a lawyer or housewife, how to make something spiritual work for them, revolving around meditation," he said.

Davis, 44, received a doctorate from the history of consciousness department at U.C. Santa Cruz, and is now executive director of Chochmat HaLev in Berkeley, the largest consortium of Jewish meditation teachers in the country.

He first learned about meditation at age 23, in India. Many young Jews traveled there to study meditation techniques, unaware that such disciplines were also rooted in Judaism, he said.

"Judaism, at least through the vehicle of the synagogue, seemed to offer only Bonds for Israel and reminders of a distant ethnicity," Davis writes.

It was only after he left India that he began to look for Jewish practitioners of meditation.

Jewish meditation is as old as the Scriptures — older, indeed, than Buddhism or Transcendental Meditation. But even before the Holocaust, only a small number of Jewish scholars and mystics practiced meditation regularly. With the Holocaust, those who would have passed down the meditative tradition were all but obliterated.

Much of Davis' work as a scholar, teacher and meditator for the last two decades has been to help reconstruct the tradition of Jewish meditation — reviewing the old, often esoteric, texts, and filling in the blanks through daily practice and by talking with Jewish as well as Christian and Buddhist practitioners of meditation.

Unlike Buddhist or Christian meditation, which emphasize detachment and renunciation, Jewish meditation stresses attachment and intimacy. Describing Jewish meditation as a communal, heated approach, Davis titles his book "The Way of the Flame."

"No one in the Torah is a renunciate," Davis said. "They go away to the top of the mountain, but then they come back down."

Davis uses a story from the Zen tradition to illustrate the contrast.

In the Zen story, both before and after attaining enlightenment, the Zen teacher performed the same task: He pounded rice.

Among Jews, he said, the pre- and post-enlightenment tasks might be the same, but the metaphor would have a decidedly more haimish cast. Instead of pounding rice, the enlightened one would be changing diapers.

"It is messy, gossipy, homey," Davis writes. "It is the path of the heart, which always implies the potential for soreness and contradiction."