In Praise of New Age Judaism

Yoga, Talismans, and Madonna's Red Strings Help Religion

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By Jay Michaelson

Published November 20, 2012, issue of November 23, 2012.
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Once again, these beliefs and practices are ridiculed by right-minded people, often with a patina of sexism (“women’s religion” “old wives’ tales”) or racism (those crazy Sephardim, or Moroccans, or Ostjuden). Surely, however, these deeply nonrational aspects of Judaism, like those of all other religions, speak to deep needs within the human consciousness. These tendencies of the human mind have not receded as our scientific understanding of the world has increased; they have merely morphed.

For example, in New Age and similar circles today, one often hears talk of “energy,” fuzzily defined in any number of ways. From simple notions of good and bad vibes to outlandish beliefs that one’s thoughts create reality, within New Age circles there is an emphasis on the unknown but powerful forces that seem to act in our lives. How different is this from cultic notions of purity, or rabbinic conceptions of angels and demons? I submit that it is different in form but not in essence. Every spiritual tradition of which I am aware has some conception of mana, energy, chi or spirit, both in a general, unitive sense and in more complicated, multiplicitous forms (angels, demons, whatever). And every tradition teaches that these powers can affect us for good or for ill.

Rather than write off these beliefs as hokum, perhaps it would be worth exploring whether they have any corollary in lived experience. “Seems” may be a more productive entry point than “is.” The same recognition of the diversity of world folklores that causes me to inquire into their value also causes me not to attach to any one system too closely. These are all guesstimates, attempts to account for the unknowable. Are the chakras really “energy centers” in the somatic system? Are there really “angels” or motes of energy haunting the blast of the shofar? I don’t know. I doubt it; I’m a Westerner, a believer in the scientific method, aware of verification bias and Occam’s slippery razor.

But is there some value to these weird beliefs? On that question, I am at least agnostic. Yet at the very least, those who pretend to speak for “Judaism,” whether secular or religious, must at least acknowledge that New Age magic and folklore are closer to biblical religion, whose concerns about “purity” prefigure contemporary notions of good and bad “energy,” than is the secularism, rationalism or fundamentalism that inhabits most Jewish communities today.’


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