Judaism Discovered ‘Wellness’ Long Before It Was Trendy
“Wellness” is one of the biggest, often eye-roll-inducing, buzzwords of today. A trillion dollar industry associated with anything from turmeric laced golden milk, to sound baths, to Lululemon activewear — it encompasses such a broad, trend-driven array of beliefs and practices that even those profiting from it struggle to define it.
Miriam Webster defines wellness as “the quality or state of being in good health, especially as an actively sought goal.” This is helpfully dissected by Wellness Proposals, which emphasizes the active pursuit of health: “Wellness and good health have historically been seen as freedom from disease; thus, if you weren’t sick, then you were considered healthy… it doesn’t, however, indicate anything about your state of well-being.” Well-being, or “wellness” refers to more than your physical health, but also your mental, spiritual and environmental welfare.
While the American wellness industry borrows heavily from other cultures — think yoga, cupping and crystals — to the point it is often criticized for cultural appropriation, there is a distinct lack of Jewish influence. This struck me as odd, and sparked a mild obsession with discovering where Jewish wellness is, and what forms it has taken.
Is Judaism Concerned with Wellness?
…You may ask. The answer is a resounding “yes!” To illustrate, let’s examine the Jewish parallels to Mind Body Green’s, one of America’s leading wellness brands, ‘Wellness Trend Predictions for 2018’:
Protecting the Planet – the Oral Torah repeatedly instructs Jews to care for the earth because it is God’s creation. Moreover, the Jewish calendar is guided by the seasons — think of Tu B’Shvat, the New Year for Trees, that celebrates the beginning of the agricultural cycle.
Breaks from Technology – aka Shabbat, the day of rest where any “work” is prohibited. The use of electricity is, at least in Orthodox Jewry, considered a violation, so technology is not used for twenty-five hours each week.
Collagen’s Gut-Healing Properties – bone broth, hailed by MBG as one of the “richest natural sources of collagen” has been part of the Jewish diet for centuries, we just call it ‘Jewish Penicillin.’
Intermittent Fasting – the Jewish calendar includes several fast days, not for dietary purposes — although some are ingeniously placed before a time of feasting, but for spiritual reflection and unification of the body and soul.
FemTech – Jewish women have been in-tune with their menstrual cycles long before someone created an app for it thanks to Family Purity laws, including niddah and the mikvah (more on this later ).
Meditation – Judaism boasts a strong meditation tradition — from Genesis’ recount of Isaac meditating in the field, to Talmudic rabbis meditating for an hour before and after prayer, to Rabbi Nachman’s hitbodedut — daily conversation in solitude with God.
Evidently, Judaism has been concerned with all facets of wellness for millennia, so why has Jewish tradition not found its way into the industry at large? And how have these beliefs and practices manifested themselves in Jewish America today?
Wellness and the World
The Oral Torah strongly advocates a Jewish responsibility to respect and care for the earth, charmingly demonstrated by the Talmudic tale of Honi, who questioned a man planting a carob tree how long it would take the tree to bear fruit. The answer “seventy years” prompted Honi to ask the man if he expected to live long enough to enjoy the tree’s fruits. The man answered that when he was born, there were many carob trees planted by the generations before him. Thus, he would plant for the generations that would follow him.
These days, Nigel Savage, the founder of Hazon, is the obvious person to talk to when it comes to Jewish environmental wellness. Hazon aims to “create a healthier and more sustainable Jewish community, and world in general”; the fact that their philosophy is so on-trend is almost certainly incidental, although Nigel notes that demand for using Judaism to frame study, social justice, healthy living and sustainability, has grown annually over the past twenty years.
This demand is identified by Nigel as a search for shleimut (wholeness), essentially synonymous with wellness in its purest form. Nigel considers shleimut “not only a deep Jewish value, but an essential part of Jewish wisdom.” This is exemplified at Hazon’s Isabella Freedman Center, where one can pray, study, practice Torah Yoga, and eat “healthy, organic, farm-to-table food.” The Adamah Fellowship, a 2-3 month agricultural program for young professionals which “cultivates the soil and the soul,” and Teva program for 2-17 year olds which “brings kids out of the classroom for four days, into woods, lakes, natural settings in which to explore the physical world through a frame of brachot [blessings] and Jewish learning,” are notable successes.
Outside the center, the Hazon Seal of Sustainability is intended to help Jewish institutions become more sustainable, in multiple ways. More than 65 organizations have already joined the pilot phase. Among other things, the seal prompts them to broaden their comprehension of what is “kosher,” by spending a year developing a broader food policy — considering how their workers, land and animals are treated; if/why they serve sugar or meat; if they grow their own food. “This brings Jewish food traditions alive; it fires people up, and lives up to the values that are implicit in Judaism, and manifests them in the real world, in a real way.”
Wellness and Women
My research revealed women to be at the forefront of modern Jewish wellness. Their actions are driven by a personal need to reclaim, or re-imagine, Jewish ritual so that they can connect to it. Each woman I spoke to generously referred me to the next, but everyone referenced the Fairy Godmother of female Jewish wellness: Mayyim Hayyim.
Mayyim Hayyim has “reclaimed and reinvented one of Judaism’s most ancient rituals” — the mikvah. Mikvah is a ritual immersion for purification purposes. Nowadays, it is predominantly used in the final stage of conversion, for brides, and as part of Family Purity laws.
Mayyim Hayyim is a non-denominational, inclusive, kosher mikvah. Founder Anita Diamant explained that they “imagined a much larger mandate for mikvah — open to every Jew, or those becoming Jewish, for transitions in life, as a spiritual preparation.” One visitor, for instance, was a widow, who visited their mikvah to mark the removal of her wedding ring. “It was really powerful and joyful. She took a life transition and created a moment to mark it with meaning, in a Jewish context.”
Diamant is keen to clarify that their mikvah is “not a spa.” Instead, it is “wellness the way Shabbat is: mindfulness. A meditation-type of wellness, where we invite people to stop, and take a deep breath.”
The mikvah inspired another Jewish wellness organization, At The Well. Founder Sarah Waxman had suffered from body image issues before she became her synogogue’s mikvah model, showing the community how to immerse. “It was a huge part of my healing journey,” and a lightbulb moment in Sarah’s search for Jewish spirituality.
At The Well is the only organization I found that markets itself as a Jewish wellness brand. Sarah’s goal “is to be the Jewish voice in the wellness industry.” Like Hazon, At The Well advocates for shleimut (wholeness), which Sarah believes is the concurrence of spirituality, physicality, and community; “If you’re more in sync with your Judaism, then you will feel better.”
Sarah’s “life’s work is to help the intersection between science and spirituality” by proving the neurological benefits of a network of Jewish women gathering to celebrate each new moon, which marks the start of a Jewish month (Rosh Chodesh). She calls these gatherings Well Circles.
Sarah is not alone in her interest in Judaism’s lunar calendar. It is an emerging Jewish wellness trend which has also been adopted by Rebekah Erev, a multi-disciplinary artist and activist. Rebekah created a set of 29 tarot-esque divination cards called the Moon Angel Oracle Deck, each of which correspond to a day in the moon’s cycle. Rebekah believes that “when you follow the moon, you become more in touch with your body, therefore your intuition, therefore your own creativity.”
At The Well also links the moon cycle to the female body. Their Well Circles draw on Judaism’s Family Purity laws, specifically niddah, to encourage participants to track their menstrual cycles in tandem with the lunar calendar. Niddah dictates that women are ritually impure during menstruation. Women must immerse in the mikvah one week after their period ends and only then can they engage in sexual relations.
Sarah is well-versed in niddah, which taught her to track her menstrual cycle and “not to be a passive bystander of my body. It was incredibly empowering.” This practice is marketed by At The Well as a way to understand the mind, body and earth, “We have totally reframed niddah from an Orthodox conversation that people are ashamed to talk about. We’ve packaged it up as a wellness ritual.”
Wellness for Inclusivity
Jewish wellness has also re-imagined tradition and practice to include community outsiders. Rebekah Erev’s Queer Mikvah Project aims to make the mikvah accessible to those who have been excluded from “this very gendered and largely orthodox ritual,” due to conversion, sexuality or gender. Whilst participants are taught the laws of mikvah, Rebekah stresses the importance of immersing “in the way that you feel vulnerable, or the most yourself.” This could be in drag, as part of a sound bath, or a “teacup mikvah — taking a cup of tea brewed with herbs that are meaningful to you and drinking it, or doing a libation to the earth.”
It is a far cry from traditional halakha, and at odds with the beliefs of Rebekah’s ancestors, who were Orthodox rabbis. This is not lost on Rebekah. “So much of my work is reclaiming, it’s a big point of turmoil for me to keep saying, ‘This is relevant,’ over and over again.”
At the other end of the spectrum sits ARQ, a community and social media platform founded by Danya Shults. ARQ’s goal is also inclusivity, but ruffles far fewer feathers. It began as a watered-down wellness venture, to provide relevant access to cultural Judaism. “I was scared about scaring people away, so I focused on the coolest Jewish stuff, like food.” A year in, ARQ’s audience have deeper questions and desires, and Danya aims to tackle them.
This shift sparked her to reflect on spirituality, which she views as similar to wellness: “living a fulfilling life.” Spirituality is not, however, synonymous with religion. “We have to believe people when they say they are spiritual and not religious. And when they say they are proud of being Jewish. I want to connect to my Jewish traditions, but I don’t want to become religious because what that currently looks like does not look like me.” Danya’s outlook is typical of modern Jewish wellness, and explains why some initiatives, like the Queer Mikvah Project, have been criticized by the Orthodox community, where inclusion is rarely a priority.
From juice cleanses to yoga to vitamin supplements — the #wellness industry has become so popularized that its value is often lost.
But Judaism knew about the need for wholeness far before it was trendy.
Perhaps through Jewish wellness — a lifestyle that embraces a holistic attitude to physical, mental, spiritual and environmental health, coupled with Jewish ideas – that value can be regained.
Rachel is a freelance journalist with a focus on arts and culture. A born and bred Brit, Rachel lived in Israel for five years before moving to New York at the beginning of 2018. She has written for Time Out, the Jerusalem Post, Times of Israel and Kveller.