Paganism and the law
by Jonathan Rosenblum
Jerusalem Post Int'l Edition
June 14, 2002
Yossi Klein Halevi describes in the May 24 edition of New York’s Jewish Week the recent Shantipi Festival in northern Israel. 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.
Clearly, Shantipi has nothing to do with the celebration of our acceptance of the laws of the Torah. Nevertheless my friend Halevi 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."
Thousands of young Israelis make post-army pilgrimages to India and the Far East every year, bringing back with them the ``spiritual wisdom" of the East that they imbibe together with the plentiful drugs to be found there. A long feature in last week’s Jerusalem Post Magazine profiles five Israelis pursuing spiritual disciplines all ``discovered" within recent memory, including Emin, ``founded in London in 1971 by a salesman and seeker who calls himself Leo," which teaches that ``all answers are within oneself."
No doubt there are some positive aspects of the newfound respect for spiritual paths – chief among them, a openness to the idea that there are dimensions of reality beyond the material, sensory world. As Rabbi Eliyahu Eliezer Dessler, one of the seminal Jewish thinkers of the 20th century used to say, ``Freud knew of the subconscious. He lacked awareness, however, the sub-subconscious: the yearning of every soul to connect to G-d."
And no doubt spiritual techniques, like meditation, can make one feel better, though I personally prefer the endorphins released by rigorous exercise to sitting cross-legged on the floor for eight hours.
Yet the idea of New Age festivals bridging the secular/religious divide, however, is nonsense. The syncretic spirituality of these festivals – select one item from column a and one from column b – has nothing to do with Judaism, positive or otherwise It doesn’t make any difference, ultimately, if the incantations are chosen from Psalms on Khahil Gibran.
New Age ``spirituality" too easily gives way to a solipsistic navel-gazing antithetical to Judaism. Shantipi, for instance, is all feeling and no deed. Nothing could be more profoundly un-Jewish becauses it places the focus on the subjective inner experience, not the Divine command.
Rabbi Joseph Ber Soloveitchik identified the essence of pagan ritual as the subjective feeling of the one performing the ritual. Jewish Law, by contrast, is objective. The Divine commands have instrinsic meaning, regardless of the subjective emotions of the one commanded. In Jewish thought, our deepest spiritual longings are only fulfilled by focusing on the source of the Law -- the G-d of Absolute Truth, Whose existence fills the world with purpose.
The subjectivism of pagan ritual can easily lead to a feeling of freedom from all restraint. Ancient Greece had its bacchanalae, in which the participants, like those at Shantipi, shed all inhibitions and restraint. Not for nothing did our Sages observe that Israel never worshipped idols except to permit licentiousness.
The pagan shift of focus to the subjective ``spiritual experience" lends itself 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 concluded 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.
The tension between Judaism, the religion of Law, and pagan spirituality has continued into modern times. The term ``spirituality" itself was coined by German Protestantism, which viewed religious practice as validated only by the spiritual experience of the individual practitioner. German Reform seized upon the Protestant concept of ``spirituality" as a club to undermine Jewish Law.
There can be no bridge between Shantipi-style 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.
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 leaving 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: World Jewry
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