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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A second, and related, way in which New Age Judaism closely echoes biblical religion is in its return to the body, to the earth and to sexuality. Here, there is no question that biblical texts record ancient controversies among Israelites, and between Israel and the other peoples who inhabited the lands of Canaan. On the one hand, the dominant biblical tradition is clearly suspicious of earth-based rituals, particularly when they are connected to goddesses, altars and ecstatic ritual practices. Aaron’s sons die, the righteous kings cut down Asherah’s groves and the golden calf is the great sin of Israel.

On the other hand, that’s only one voice — and traces of contrary motions remain within biblical religion. Today, as contemporary Jews struggle with the problematic rituals of circumcision or the arcane rules of kashrut, it’s worth recalling how embodied and earthy these ancient practices of Judaism are. And while a secularist may smirk at the Jewish yoga class taking place in the social hall, the integration of body and spiritual practice echoes this ancient orientation.

Likewise the recent surge in Jewish environmentalism, Jewish farming and Jewish wilderness programs. Sukkahfest at the Isabella Freedman Jewish Retreat Center, in Connecticut, is more deeply connected to the agricultural roots of this harvest festival than it is to the rabbinic attempts to paint over it with myth and nationalism. Wilderness Torah’s Passover in the Desert emphasizes the experiential and earth-centered aspects of Chag Ha’aviv (holiday of spring) more than the pilpul, the sharp analysis, of the Seder liturgy or the literary qualities of the Haggadah. And that’s just in America; in Israel, the move to return Judaism to the land has existed as long as Zionism has.

Obviously, these forms of reclaiming are, in Jewish Renewal movement co-founder Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi’s useful dichotomy, movements of renewal rather than of restoration. No one is arguing for a return to some preindustrial Eden, with its lack of modern medicine or technology. (Of course, some do argue that medicine and technology have spun out of control, and need to be balanced with different forms of healing, communication and healthy living.) Certainly no one is claiming — as some hysterical right-wing commentators have recently proposed —that it’s “anything goes” when it comes to one’s Jewish practice. Conservatives have been whining that whine for millennia, but it doesn’t make it so.

Rather, what is proposed here is that a core aspect of spiritual practice, in a religious context or not, is the nonrational and mysterious, the part that gets you in your kishkes — literally, according to some. Educated Jews tend to scorn wacky evangelicals possessed by the Spirit, but more and more of those same Jews are flocking to yoga classes and aligning the energy in their chakras. Indeed, the contrary movements may be complementary. The more we attempt to tamp down the nonrational parts of ourselves and our society, the more they squirm out and express themselves in unexpected ways. What would it be like, I wonder, to incorporate the primal within our Jewish ritual lives, like the cherubim locked in ecstatic embrace at the center of the Holy of Holies?


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