Saturday, June 7, 2008
Is Yoga Kosher?
A friend told me about this discussion, and I feel moved to make a contribution. In order to be properly understood, I think it important to start out by providing the perspective from which I am approaching these subjects. I was born Jewish and my childhood Hebrew School and Bar Mitzvah were through the neighborhood Modern Orthodox synagogue, although my family was not very observant other than for the normal major holidays. In my late teens, I went through an atheist period, rejecting the childhood notions inculcated in my early religious education. Around this same time, I began to be exposed to Eastern thought, yoga and meditation, which I found quite attractive, and I settled into a spiritual path through a traditional Indian yoga/Vedanta lineage, updated for modern sensibilities. I have remained engaged in this path for over 30 years now, but beginning several years ago, I was also led to reinvestigate Judaism from an adult perspective and through the eyes of a practicing Jewish yogi. As many recent polls have indicated, I am one of many Americans who consider myself spiritual, but not religious. For me, religion incorporates spirituality, and clothes it in theology, dogma, doctrine and ritual, which at their best, help communicate and enliven spirituality, and at their worst, obscure, conceal and choke it. So I have always looked for spirituality within a variety of religious sources, finding it most prominently communicated in the mystical branches of many religions. I have felt a particular affinity with Indian yoga/Vedanta and Judaism/Kabbalah, two of the world’s most ancient spiritual traditions from which many others have derivatively sprung. I believe that there is true, unadulterated spirituality that precedes religion and that can be found within religion if one looks carefully. There are strains of yoga/Vedanta that attempt to communicate this pure spirituality, but because it developed in India, many of the same terms and concepts were also incorporated into Hinduism (and for the sake of clarification, “Hinduism” is a term foisted upon these people by Westerners; Hindus maintain that the real preferred term for their religion is “Sanatan Dharma”, which means “The Eternal Path”). So there is inevitably a lot of confusion over what is purely spiritual yoga and what is colored with Hindu concepts. Judaism has traditionally always been regarded and presented as a religion and even something more, a total way of life with ideally no separation of church/religion and state. But what attracts me to Judaism is the incredible spirituality that it contains and communicates. I do not have much interest in the religious elements other than as they may truly enhance spirituality.
Although I do not agree with all of its doctrines, I have great respect for the Chabad movement because it communicates a great deal of the spirituality within Judaism that has not been communicated by other traditional movements. I know the tremendous respect with which all of the Rebbes have been regarded, including Menachem Schneerson. However, I disagree with several of the points he made in his piece on meditation referenced in these discussions. I think the disagreement arises because of different perspectives. He was operating as a proponent of Judaism as a religion, and I am interested in spiritual, but not religious Judaism. He speaks with approval of meditation techniques that are truly secularized as stress management techniques, while disapproving of any with spiritual or religious intentions outside of Judaism. It is apparent to me that meditation originated as a spiritual exercise, a means to discover, nurture and express spirituality, and that is why it is so significant to me. It is also apparent to me that the physical yoga exercises, along with the breathing techniques and the moral dictates, as found in the classic system of Raja Yoga/Ashtanga yoga elucidated by Patanjali, were originally propagated as part of a system for spiritual development, and served as preliminary stages of preparation for meditation meant for deepening one’s spiritual nature and development. It is also apparent that our Western culture has succeeded to a large extent in de-spiritualizing the physical exercises to a great extent, and even the meditation, possibly to a lesser extent, turning them into ends in and of themselves (physical exercises just for the sake of physical fitness, meditation just for the sake of stress management). These are the forms that the Rebbe approved. But my interest is in them as tools for spiritual development, for which they were originally intended.
I do not subscribe to the concept promoted by Rabbi Laible Wolfe that there is a “Jewish soul” unique to Jews, a concept similar to what Chabad teaches of a “G-dly soul” unique to Jews, and that spiritual practices not native to Judaism are harmful to these souls. No matter how much current proponents of Jewish spirituality and mysticism claim that Judaism is a distinct and complete system for the development of the souls of Jewish people, and warn against dabbling in any other spiritual systems, I don’t buy it. There is no question of major overlaps and commonalties between spiritual and mystical teachings and practices that transcend time, place, and ethnicity. I have no problem merging and synthesizing useful elements from all approaches.
Rabbi Schneerson warns against involvement with Indian guru cults. But when I hear and read about the relationships between Chasidic Rebbes and their students, these stories are remarkably similar to stories about Indian gurus and Zen Masters and their students. The Jewish advocates always want to make distinctions, and illustrate how the Jewish way may seem similar to other approaches, but in the end the Jewish way is always the best. This is another idea I just don’t accept. I think that there are many valid spiritual approaches from many sources that can be merged and synthesized for individual spiritual benefit, incorporating the best of all worlds, as some augment others.
Concerning the controversy over the Sun Salutation, I agree with the comments that it is merely a conglomeration of several other unobjectionable yoga postures into a series of movements that unfortunately somehow was ascribed its designated name. My limited research into the origin of the name and the exercise came up with the result that nobody knows for certain who developed it or why it was so named. There is no question that on the surface, the name can be construed as worshipping or praising a sun deity. However, it can just as easily be construed that it is in praise of the Source of the sun, the One Source that is the Source of all. Despite its stress on emphasizing The One, Judaism recognizes and acknowledges many names and attributes to The One: YHVH, Elohim, Adonai, El Shaddai, Ehyeh Asher Ehyeh, Ein Soph, Moshiach, Mogen, the thirteen attributes of mercy revealed to Moses, the names of the Sephiroth, etc. The prayers and blessings of Jewish liturgy are replete with acknowledging the benefits of all of the many varieties of manifestation that have been provided to us by The One, to which we are forever expressing our gratitude, and the many attributes, names and functions by which The One is known and operates. We don’t praise the bread or the wine, we express thanks to the Creator who provided them to us for our sustenance and enjoyment. So why can’t Jewish yogis express gratitude to the Creator for providing us with the sun, the instrumentality of the Creator that enables life as we know it to exist? The Torah tells us that the main entrance of the Temple was constructed to face East in order to receive the first rays of the rising sun. So why is it so horrible to conduct a series of exercises that does the same thing? While Judaism keeps all of the names, qualities and attributes designated to The One in the more intangible realm of name and sound, Hinduism takes it one step further and deifies/personifies these aspects, thus violating the Jewish dictate against idolatry. However, whenever I consider how Jews regard the Torah, placing it in a special housing, rising before it, bowing to it, dressing it, undressing it, kissing it, dancing with it, crying over it – I think of how the average Hindu would behold all of that and conclude how similar it is to how they regard their idols.
As Rabbi Freeman recognizes, Hinduism teaches that there is ultimately One Source of all, just like Judaism. And I hope that Jews don't sit in judgement over Hindus as pagans and heathens due to their pantheon of deities and idol worship. Perhaps it may not be the avenue for Jews, who keep those distinctions on an intangible level, but that doesn’t mean it is not a legitimate religious avenue for others. Kabbalah teaches that there is a spark of Divinity within all beings, the source of internal and external peace and well-being. What is so different, then between the Indian greetings of Namaste/Namaskar which acknowledges this and the Jewish greeting of Shalom?
One area in which I think Judaism is lacking is its overemphasis on the value placed on engagement in everyday common family life, to the exclusion of any other lifestyle. I honor the idea that most of us are here to engage in such activities as participants in the design of manifestation. However, significant contributions can also made in more subtle, quiet, reclusive endeavors. Most other religions acknowledge that there are those of an introspective, reclusive, monkish nature who should also be accommodated and who can contribute in their own unique ways. Judaism seems to be one of the few enduring religious traditions that has not made such an acknowledgement or accommodation.
Rabbi Freeman warns against a kind of transcendence that can serve as escapism. I agree that it is not appropriate to regard life as a prison that needs to be escaped from, or posing a puzzle with the solution being an avenue for an exit as soon as possible. And I believe it is true that some forms of Eastern spirituality seem to promote this attitude and approach. However, I believe there are other strains of Indian spirituality that encompass what is sometimes referred to as “Practical Vedanta”: there is a kind of transcending afforded by meditating on a daily basis that is not escapism, but is as significant and inherent in our nature as are many other activities in which we engage on a daily basis for our overall well-being, such as eating and sleeping. Proper and regular diet, sleep, exercise, and yes, transcending through meditation, are for me all elements essential for optimizing functionality in the external world. The empty mind that one contributor to this discussion warned against is not really empty, it is just quiet and still, remaining vibrant and poised for more efficient functioning when called upon. Likewise, the Void referred to in Zen is not really empty, it is the realm of the unmanifest potentiality from which all manifestation and actualization springs forth.
Concerning the nachash, the infamous snake, there is no question in my mind that it is a reference to that same power known in yoga as kundalini/serpent power. There was reference in this discussion to Jewish teachings warning against involvement with such a thing. Yoga teaches to approach such power with proper preparation and great caution, as it is the most subtle, but greatest, power of all manifestation, from which the rest of manifest life emanates. I believe the traditional restrictions on studying Kabalah served a similar purpose to assure proper preparation before approaching such potency. The kundalini is also described in yoga as the feminine aspect of The One dwelling within all manifestation, by which all manifestation is made possible, and through which one can spiritually develop and use as a tool to commune with The One. There is thus also no doubt in my mind that what is called “kundalini” in yoga is the same as what is called “Shechinah” in Judaism, the presence of The One dwelling amidst manifest life. In fact, the consonants for “Shechinah” are phonetically similar to the consonants of “Nachash” reversed. The true function performed by the serpent in the Garden was to act as an agent of The One to complete the task of bringing manifest life as we know it into being, by causing primordial Man/Woman to be propelled out of the Garden into the life of manifestation and duality as we know it, retaining both the “good” knowledge to remember that all emanates from The One, and the “evil” inclination to forget that and become lost in a sense of separation, the primary root of all evil. Pharaoh was the ultimate expression of this worldly power and sense of separation gone astray and deified as the Be-All-and-End-All, represented by none other than the same serpent embodied in his headdress. Moses’ first encounter with Pharaoh was to illustrate that this ultimate of earthly power of manifestation was not to be deified, but rather to be used as our support to praise and do the work of The One from which it emanated: it served as his walking stick/his ability to function in the world (the Hebrew word for the snake that emanated from Moses’ staff is none other than “nachash”). “Thy rod and thy staff, they comfort me.” It is indeed tricky to take the snake by the tail, as Moses did, but that is what is necessary to achieve the mastery of life which leads to the ability to become the perfect humble servant to the Originator of life.
Quote of the Week 391 - The Song of the Bird
Quote of the Week 391 - The Song of the Bird
The disciples were full of questions about God.
Said the master, “God is the Unknown and the Unknowable. Every statement about him, every answer to your questions, is a distortion of the truth.”
The disciples were bewildered. “Then why do you speak about him at all?”
“Why does the bird sing?”
--Anthony de Mello, The Song of the Bird
Meditation (Click your selection, scroll down to view it)
- Audio Link: A Foundation for a Fruitful Meditation Practice: Science of Breath/Pranayama/Relaxation - Theory and Practice
- Audio Link: (Scroll to 11/04/18 entry) The Breath and Life Force; Guided Meditation - I Am an Empty Shell, Therefore I Am Full, etc.
- Meditation Basics - Expanded Version
- Meditation Basics - Condensed Version
- Mantra Meditation Basics
- Nada Meditation - Anahata/The Unstruck Sound
- Jewish Yoga Meditation
- Hebrew Mantras
- Hebrew Mantras, Part Two
- Hebrew Mantras, Part Three
- Hebrew Mantras - Adonai Hineni
- Healing Meditation: Ruach El Shaddai/Breath of Balance
- Meditating, Eating and Sleeping
- Shortcuts to Spiritual Development?
- Audio Link: Guided Meditation - I Am and Empty Shell, Therefore I Am Full; A Meditation on Emptiness and Dark Luminescence Based on the Opening Lines of Genesis
- Guided Meditation: The Stage
- Guided Meditation: I Am an Empty Shell, Therefore I Am Full; A Meditation on Emptiness and Dark Luminescence Based on the Opening Lines of Genesis
- Guided Meditation: The Rod, The Staff, and The Star
- Torah-Veda Meditation Class Site
- Interspiritual Contemplative Group