People tend to think that the Orthodox and Hasidic Jews are really pious, the Conservative Jews less so, and the Reform and Reconstructionist even less.
Not so. Piety is individual. You decide how pious you wish to be. Some may argue that the Liberal Jew who makes a decision to engage in piety every day is more pious than the Orthodox Jew who rarely pauses to decide for himself what endows his structured life with meaning.
If you want it to, piety can fill your life as a Jew and endow it with transcendent meaning. Piety can overshadow faith at the central defining core of your Judaism. You can bring it into your daily, weekly and annual routines, and life cycle events.
"Mindful" is a term made popular by meditation guru, Jon Kabat-Zinn and others through their writings and teachings. They brought the concept into Western life from its origins within Eastern cultures. These teachers instruct us to meditate on the here-and-now. As if this was some new idea to us in the West. Done properly, religious practice affords us this mindfulness constantly in any number of ways.
We describe some elements of the religion of the Talmudic rabbis. If this is a form of Judaism that fulfills your needs, go with it! If not, we suggest you discover and then extract the major concepts of classical Judaic practice and apply them to your circumstances. In that way you will develop mindful piety for yourself, for your community and your calendar.
The Judaic Roots of Mindful Piety
Long ago rabbis prescribed, for example, that each Jew recite one hundred blessings each day. The recitation of a blessing prior to the performance of many basic rituals helped make a Jew mindful of his every action.
R. Meir used to say, "There is no man in Israel who does not perform one hundred commandments each day [and recite over them one hundred blessings] . . . And there is no man in Israel who is not surrounded by [reminders of the] commandments. [Every person wears] phylacteries on his head, phylacteries on his arm, has a mezuzah on his door post and four fringes on his garment around him . . . [Tosefta Berakhot 6:24-25]."From the first stirring every morning, the mindful Jew began his day with acts of religious significance.
Waking up: Washing hands upon arising took on a special meaning. The individual conducted the washing according to a simple but prescribed practice. Water had to be poured on the fingers of each hand up to the joint as specified by the masters.
Bodily functions like elimination are not ordinarily considered in the realm of religious ritual. Yet the rabbis of old said that one had to recite a blessing after that normally profane physical process as thanks for continued health.
And speaking words of wisdom, Praying. In rabbinic Judaism morning prayers were literally clothed in piety. Often they took place in a special spot. And of course, they were repeated regularly.
Dressing for prayer: The man put on the tallith (prayer shawl) and tefillin (phylacteries) while reciting the respective blessings. Each pious male obtained and maintained these prized and essential objects of piety in accord with the prescriptions of the rabbis and scribes. The man wore these objects to show compliance with the prescriptions of the verses of the Torah recited in the shema (Deut. 6:4-9, 11:13-21 and especially Num. 15:37-41). Each knot on the four fringes of the tallith garment was tied in accord with age-old tradition.
The tefillin were crafted of select leather, made into cubical containers to hold the small parchments of biblical paragraphs written by trained scribes. The head-tefillin had to rest on the worshiper between the eyes on the forehead, neither too high on the head, nor too low on the face. The leather strap that held it in place had to be tied in accord with known custom. The wearer understood that the knot of leather that sat at the base of his skull was a representation of the letter yod, the third letter of Shaddai, one of the divine names.
On the leather box of the arm-tefillin was inscribed the letter shin. The wearer knew that the knot that held it fast on his left biceps--opposite his heart--was a form of the letter dalet. Thus as he recited prayer, the Jew was bound head and heart to God, Shaddai. He wore these appurtenances each weekday from the time he reached 13, the age of maturity, the age of Bar Mitzvah. Obtaining a pair of tefillin from the scribe was the most significant overt sign of achieving adult membership in the rabbinic community.
The standard practice was to wear the tallith and tefillin during the morning prayers and then remove them. To show extreme piety some few virtuoso rabbis wore them all day as they sat immersed in the study of Torah.
Congregating for prayer: An ordinary Jewish man could recite his prayers in a designated synagogue or study hall, in private, at home, or in any orderly place. For optimal piety he went to the synagogue to pray with the minyan, the prayer quorum of ten adult Jews. The formalization of the synagogue as a standard communal institution took place over a span from the first century through the middle ages. The emphasis in Jewish custom and law was always on prayer in a public gathering of ten or more men, not on prayer in a specified building or designated place for gathering. This aspect of rabbinic piety was thus defined mainly in terms of a societal association with a community of other Jews. The rabbis placed little emphasis on the need for sacred bricks and mortar to fulfill the spiritual needs of prayer.
Repeating the process: Rabbinic piety centered on stability and repetition. On weekdays Jews gathered for the morning, afternoon and evening prayers. Major elements of prayer were repeated with small variations at the three services. A person said the shema in the morning and evening services; the amidah (standing prayer of eighteen blessings) in the morning afternoon and evening services; the alenu (a sublime prayer proclaiming God king) to conclude all three.
To these they added a morning Torah service to the public prayer on Monday and Thursday and on any festival or fast day. For this part of the service they read the first section of the seven of the Torah weekly portion that was going to be read during the Sabbath morning service at the end of the workweek. This focused attention on the coming Sabbath celebration and gave the men gathered during the week an added opportunity to hear the inspiration of the words of Torah.
During the week a fourth service, the additional prayers, called musaf, were added to celebrate special days. On New moons, celebrants added several paragraphs to the regular services and read an appropriate passage from the Torah. They concluded the morning prayers with the recitation of the amidah the standing prayer of eighteen blessings -- of the additional service. Likewise on holidays, modifications were made in the regular prayers and the additional musaf amidah was appended.
Evening prayers consisted of the shema, amidah and alenu. A widespread custom was to recite the shema once more at bedtime. Many believed this added evocation of piety would also protect the person who recited it from harm during the night.
The Mindful Challenge
Simply put the challenge is how do we take these traditions and making them over into a template for our own lives? Rabbis often tell us their answer. However, deep Piety, especially mindful piety, cannot come from the outside.
How do we find meaning through study and reflection and make all this into our own piety? No one should presume to tell us that, though many will. But that must be our own - our most personal task. (Repost)