Jewish law and neopaganism
by Jonathan Rosenblum
June 21, 2002
Three weeks ago, The Jerusalem Post Magazine profiled five Israeli Jews, each a follower of a different guru who has discovered the secrets of the universe within the past 50 years.
Arie Ben-David, for instance, is a follower of Emin, founded in London in 1971 "by a salesman and seeker who calls himself Leo," which teaches that "all the answers are within oneself."
Cults and quasi-spiritual movements have proliferated in all advanced Western societies, but Israel seems to be particularly prone to them. About 30,000 Israelis are involved in Transcendental Meditation - roughly six times the number of members of the Reform Movement in Israel. Thousands of young Israelis annually make post-army pilgrimages to India and the Far East, where they imbibe "spiritual wisdom," along with the plentiful drugs to be found there.
A whole calendar of New Age festivals, paralleling the traditional Jewish holidays, has been created in Israel. This past Shavuot, for instance, 30,000 mostly young Israeli Jews gathered in Northern Israel for the annual Shantipi Festival. For the uninitiated, Shantipi (Hindu shanti plus American Indian teepee), is a New Age alternative to Shavuot. As described by Yossi Klein Halevi in the May 24 Jewish Week, participants "danced and meditated, drank cardamom-flavored tea ... beat Arabic drums and blew shofars ..."
In general, the spookier the better is the rule for Israel's spiritual seekers. America boasts its celebrity Kabbala centers where Madonna can explore in five easy lessons esoterica once reserved for the greatest Torah scholars upon reaching the age of 40, and anyone hoping to attract an audience for Torah classes in Israel knows that it must be wrapped as mystika-made-easy.
There is something infantile about the Israeli approach to religion. Secular Israelis have less trouble believing that all one needs to blow off one's enemies is a few incantations and a candle than that God gave us the Torah, and cares whether we keep it.
Israeli Jews find it easier to accept that there is a God who rewards good deeds than that He punishes bad ones - surely a comforting thought.
SOME SEE secular Israelis' interest in matters spiritual as a positive development from a Jewish point of view. The Post Magazine piece noted that some of those profiled had taken on aspects of traditional Jewish observance or had Orthodox offspring. And Klein Halevi finds "something potentially significant" in the New Age festivals, with their melding of Eastern religion and selected Jewish practices. The 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."
No doubt there is a positive aspect to the spiritual quests - the new openness to the idea that there is a dimension of reality beyond the material, sensory world. The spiritual thirst of young Jews is an expression of what the seminal 20th century Jewish thinker Rabbi Eliyahu Dessler once termed the sub-subconscious: the yearning for a connection to God hard-wired into the human soul.
That thirst would seem to be particularly strong among young Jews. In America, for instance, the number of Jews in cults is wildly disproportionate to their percentage in the population. (Another point of commonality between Israeli and Diaspora Jewish youth: Whatever minimal Jewish education they have received has left them convinced that it is pointless to search for answers within their own religion.)
No doubt, too, there are halachically acceptable forms of meditation and other spiritual techniques, and these can have a calming effect, (though I personally prefer the endorphins released by rigorous exercise to sitting cross-legged on the floor).
While acknowledging that a positive impulse animates the spiritual search of many Israelis, I suspect that the current expressions of that impulse are far more likely to lead away from Judaism than towards it. In Judaism, the focus is on God. Finite man's life derives its meaning and eternity through the connection to God, the eternal source of all Being. The mitzvot are the means to that connection. (The word mitzva itself is derived from a Hebrew root signifying joining together.)
Modern "spirituality" tends in the other direction - toward a focus on the self. In place of the moral discipline derived from being bound by the Divine command, it tends to break down all sense of restraint and to undermine both law and morality. The recent Shantipi, Klein Halevi admits, was characterized by "widespread" drug use and public promiscuity. In that, it resembled the bacchanals of ancient Greece, in which the participants shed all inhibitions and restraint.
The resemblance of Shantipi to Dionysian rites is not accidental, for at root there is something neo-pagan about New Age spirituality. Not for nothing did our Sages say that Israel never worshipped idols except to permit licentiousness.
The essence of pagan ritual is that it derives meaning only from the subjective experience of the one performing the ritual. Our Sages describe pagan worshippers as "standing on their gods" - i.e., as viewing their gods only as a means to satisfy their own desires.
In the modern context, the pagan emphasis on the subjective "spiritual experience" lends itself easily to solipsistic navel-gazing.
Klein Halevi, who has long been enthusiastic about sycretic amalgamations of Jewish and Far Eastern elements, gave unwitting testimony to this tendency towards self-worship, a few years back in The Jerusalem Report. There he describes a group of young Israelis, led by the son of a Conservative rabbi from Argentina, who gather in a desert tent for Shabbat. At the end of the evening, the group leader dances himself into a trance, as the walls of the tent undulate.
"All distinctions merge as a desert tribe celebrates its god, celebrates itself."
Precisely. Celebrating its god as a means of celebrating itself.
Ultimately, there can be no bridge between paganism and Judaism. The Torah was given to supplant paganism, and Jewish Law and paganism have been in conflict ever since. The term "spirituality" itself is the creation of German Protestant thought, which held that religious ritual could only be validated by the subjective experience of the ritual. That idea was subsequently adopted by Reform Judaism as a means of undermining halacha.
The spiritual thirst of young Israelis is a positive development, but it will only be slaked when it becomes the thirst for the "word of God" foretold by the prophets. Our deepest spiritual longings are only fulfilled through the Law, which connects us to the God of Truth, whose existence fills the world with purpose.
Related Topics: Israeli Society, Jewish Ethics
receive the latest by email: subscribe to the free jewish media resources mailing list