by Jonathan Rosenblum
Baltimore Jewish Times
May 31, 2002
Yossi Klein Halevi describes in the May 24 Jewish Week the recent Shantipi Festival in northern Israel. For those who have never heard of Shantipi (Hindu shanti + American Indian teepee), it is a New Age alternative to Shavuot. The 30,000 participants ``danced and meditated and massaged, drank cardoman-flavored tea . . . beat Arabic drums and blew shofars . . . ‘’ Drug use, Halevi admits, was ``widespread," as was sexual promiscuity.
Whatever else Shantipi may be, it is emphatically not Shavuot, which celebrates our receiving of the Torah. The receipt of the Torah is the defining moment of world history. Had the Jewish people not accepted the Torah, say our Sages, the world would have returned to its original state of formlessness.
But the commemoration of that event has little meaning for most modern Jews. Shavuot has no distinctive customs – no Pesach seder, no sukkah-building, no Channukah candle-lighting. Nor does the day lend itself readily to some universal message, as does Pesach, the festival of freedom, or Yom Kippur, a day of soul-searching and resolve to do better (however defined).
Jews who neither study Torah nor observe its commandments find little to celebrate on Shavuot. That explains why Shavuot has become the poor stepchild of the Jewish calendar.
Though Shantipi bears no connection to the Giving of the Law, my friend Yossi professes to find ``something potentially significant" about the goings-on. New Age festivals, he claims, can help bridge the void between the Israeli secular and Orthodox worlds, ``with new spiritual expressions that transcend the divide."
Perhaps I’m a premature curmudgeon, but that claim strikes me as nonsense. The syncretic spirituality of Shantipi – select one item from column a and one from column b – has nothing to do with Judaism, positive or otherwise.
Shantipi is all feeling and no deed. Nothing could be more profoundly un-Jewish. The essence of the pagan rituals, Rabbi Joseph Ber Soloveitchik observed, is the subjective feeling of the one performing the ritual. Ancient Greece had its ecstatic cults with their bacchanals, in which the participants, like those at Shantipi, felt themselves free of all restraints. Not for nothing did our Sages observe that Israel never worshipped idols except to permit licentiousness.
German Protestantism took from paganism the idea that religious practice is validated only by the ``spiritual" experience of the individual practitioner. And German Reform subsequently employed the Protestant concept of ``spirituality" to undermine Jewish Law.
The pagan emphasis shift on the subjective ``spiritual experience" leads easily to self-worship. Thus our Sages described pagans as ``standing on their gods" – i.e., viewing their gods as a means of serving themselves. A few years back, Halevi unwittingly captured this element of New Age religion when describing a group of young Israelis, recently returned from their spiritual quests in India, who have attempted to meld Eastern religion and ``selected" Jewish ceremonies.
His rhapsodic description concludes with the group leader dancing himself into a trance as the walls of the desert tent undulate: ``All distinctions merge as a desert tribe celebrates its god, celebrates itself." Precisely the point, the whole spiritual endeavor was nothing more than the celebration of self.
Judaism is the religion of Law. In contrast to pagan subjectivism, Law is objective. the Divine commands have intrinsic meaning; they are not invested with meaning by us. It is the objective fact of the command, not the subjective emotions of the commanded, that always remains primary.
That is not to say that the intentions of the one performing the Divine command are irrelevant in Jewish thought.. Without, for instance, the intention to fulfill the will of the Divine commander, the performance of the mitzvah may be rendered halachically meaningless. And an absence of joy in performing the mitzvah indicates that something is lacking in one’s Divine service.
Paradoxically, only by emphasizing the source of that Law, the G-d of Truth, Whose existence fills the world with purpose, can our deepest spiritual longings be fulfilled. For only through a sense of connection to the unchanging source of all being does one escape the bounds of one’s material self.
Shantipi cannot bridge the divide between secular and religious in Israel because there can be no bridge between paganism and Jewish Law. The two are antithetical; the Law was given to supplant pagan rites.
The only bridge Shantipi provides, unfortunately, is between young secular Jews in America and those in Israel. In America, young Jews constitute a wildly disproportionate percentage of religious cults; in Israel, spiritual journeys to India have become a virtual rite of passage for young Israelis after army service.
America has its Kabbalah Centers, and Israel its purveyors of all sorts of mystica – ersatz, spiritual quick-fixes, requiring no change in one’s actions.
What passes for Jewish education in both countries has twice failed. First by leavign the spiritual longings of young Jews completely unanswered, and second by convincing those who seek to slake their spiritual thirst that there is no point to looking towards their own Judaism for answers.
Related Topics: Jewish Ethics, Shavuot
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