Of Tao and Torah: New Age Beliefs Are Making Serious Inroads in U.S. Jewish Life

Prayers featuring mindfulness meditation, yoga retreats, 'intention setting' sessions and lectures on the Zodiac — all are evidence of the contemporary spirit infusing synagogues of every stripe today

Matthew Schultz
Matthew Schultz
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A yoga class in Miami Beach, Florida. Synagogues are increasingly integrating practices from other faiths, such as chanting, yoga and mindfulness meditation, into their prayer services.
A yoga class in Miami Beach, Florida. Synagogues are increasingly integrating practices from other faiths, such as chanting, yoga and mindfulness meditation, into their prayer services.Credit: JOE RAEDLE / AFP
Matthew Schultz
Matthew Schultz

Once considered fringe, the New Age has penetrated the American mainstream. It’s marketed as political doctrine by Democratic presidential candidate Marianne Williamson. It’s preached on television by Oprah. It’s featured in best-selling books like “The Secret” and “The Power of Now.” It can be found on campuses and in boardrooms. It’s on the “vision board” in your co-worker’s cubicle, and on sale at a Sephora near you in the form of “Starter Witch Kits,” containing white sage, rose quartz, tarot cards and other occult tchotchkes for the reasonable price of $42 (plus tax).

These trends are now backed up by data. According to a 2018 study by the Pew Research Center, 62 percent of Americans — religious, spiritual and secular alike — hold at least one New Age belief.

New Age beliefs are hard to pin down, but Pew researchers made simple work of defining them. For the sake of their study, a New Ager is someone who maintains that “spiritual energy” can be contained in physical objects (such as “mountains, trees and crystals”), and may also believe in astrology, reincarnation and psychics.

It would be easy enough to expand on that list. Alternative healing methods like Reiki and ThetaHealing leap to mind, as well as the belief that humans can manifest positive thoughts into reality. That said, Rabbi Alan Brill — who has an endowed chair in Jewish-Christian studies at Seton Hall University, New Jersey — repeatedly cautions against using the term “New Age” as a catchall, insisting that it actually refers to something very specific.

New Age guru Marianne Williamson talking to reporters after a Democratic presidential primary debate in Detroit, July 2019.Credit: Carlos Osorio,AP

Asked what that might be, however, he produces a list of generalities: “The New Age is very eclectic. It’s focused on personal growth. It believes that all perspectives are valid, and that there’s one truth behind everything.”

As one prominent crystal healer in Los Angeles (who asked not to be named for this article) told Haaretz in a phone interview, “There’s no one person who can tell you what New Age spirituality is and what it’s not.”

'Spirit and purpose'

The landscape of Jewish organizations in the United States reflects both of the New Age axioms cited by Brill: that of eclecticism, and that of personal development. Synagogues are increasingly integrating practices from other faiths (chanting, yoga, mindfulness meditation, etc.) into their prayer services, which are often steeped in the language of self-improvement.

For instance, at the IKAR congregation in Los Angeles, which is not affiliated with any established Jewish stream, participation in the morning weekday minyan (prayer quorum) is described as an “intention setting” exercise, while its Shabbat service is described as a “fusion of spirit and purpose, old and new, East and West, [Iraqi-Jewish musician] Yair Dalal and Bono.”

This is hardly a new phenomenon. The term Jubu, or Jewish Buddhist, has been around since the 1990s. Best-selling authors like Rodger Kamenetz (“The Jew in the Lotus”) and the late Alan Lew (aka “the Zen rabbi”) testify to the growing market for Zen-infused Judaism.

At the egalitarian Conservative Beth Meyer Synagogue in Raleigh, North Carolina, one can join the Hineini meditation group or the Yoga Minyan. For a more immersive experience, one can participate in a yoga retreat at the Isabella Freedman Jewish Retreat Center in Falls Village, Connecticut. Meanwhile, those who prefer an intense New Age vibe can take part in activities at a host of Kabbalah Centre [sic] branches and attend lectures on both Hanukkah or the Zodiac depending on the evening.

One might think that Orthodox Judaism, in its commitment to the primacy of the Torah, would eschew such practices. But that would be untrue.

In 2017, Rephoel Szmerla, an Orthodox rabbi from Lakewood, New Jersey, caused a minor stir with the publication of his book “Alternative Medicine in Halachah,” in which he finds justifications based on halakha (religious Jewish law) for practices such as Reiki, energy healing, acupuncture, dowsing, feng shui and aura readings. A series of measles outbreaks in Brooklyn throughout 2018 and 2019 drew national attention to the ultra-Orthodox population’s reliance on such alternative healing methods and rejection of vaccinations.

According to Brill, the religious scholar, such trends in the Orthodox world have diverse roots. In some cases, they include elements of Hasidism, kabbala and traditional Jewish folk practices that bear only a passing resemblance to the New Age trend. In other cases, these are New Age beliefs repackaged in Hasidic garb.

The late Rabbi Alan Lew's book "This is Real and You Are Completely Unprepared," Rabbi Rephoel Szmeria's "Alternative Medicine in Halachah" and Rodger Kamenetz's "The Jew in the Lotus."

Thus, the New Agey heterodoxy of the Orthodox world may trace its roots to both the 18th century and the 1970s. It was then, at the dawn of the New Age movement, that many young American Jews began embracing ultra-Orthodox Judaism. In joining what is known as the baal teshuva (newly religious) movement, these formerly secular Jewish seekers may have brought a good deal of New Age ethos with them when they entered the Orthodox world.

Judging by her website, Rabbi Shefa Gold, of the national ALEPH: Alliance of Jewish Renewal organization, is the embodiment of the encounter between Judaism and the New Age, inasmuch as she compares halakha to the concept of the Tao and refers to the Torah as the “collective dream” of the Jewish people.

When I ask her for her take on the role of the New Age in Judaism, however, she responds warily, expressing her concern that “the term ‘New Age’ has become something derisive.”

She worried that I would focus on the aspects of the movement that are commercial, superstitious or magical.

“If I was writing this article,” she says, “that wouldn’t be where I would go to find out where the real juice is.”

Rabbi Shefa Gold. Compares halakha to the concept of the Tao and refers to the Torah as the “collective dream” of the Jewish people.Credit: Connie Reider

Gold’s personal spiritual journey started early, when she asked her childhood rabbi why an all-powerful God needs humans to pray to him. The rabbi responded that prayer is a way to “butter God up” before asking him for something. Even as a child, Gold sensed that this approach was off base. Faced with that rather shallow vision of Judaism, she turned to the nascent New Age movement, seeking depth, authenticity and true spirituality.

Her narrative is a fairly common one, as reflected on the website of the Conservative Valley Beth Shalom synagogue in Los Angeles: “Jewish Buddhists, Jewish Sufis, Jewish Hindus, Jewish Wicans, Jewish Scientologists, and Jewish Christians. … What we have here is a generation of Jews who have left Judaism, for Jewish reasons. … Tell me, rabbi, who has betrayed who? Who has rejected who? Who walked out on who?”

Lapsed Jews?

While there will always be those who characterize any attempt to fuse Jewish ritual with New Age practices as a lapsing of authentic Judaism, many congregations are trying to integrate those alternative practices into their services and other activities. Indeed, according to Jeremy Rosen, New Agey thinking is nothing new for Jews.

Rosen, an Orthodox rabbi from Great Britain who has written about the issue of Judaism and superstition, says that Judaism has always had two streams: “The rational/philosophical and the mystical.”

“If you go back to medieval Spain, you have [kabbalist] Abraham Abulafia giving exercises which were akin to yoga and meditation,” he says, which helped people cope with an “uncertain world.” Today, they serve much the same purpose.

Participants in the International Yoga Day in Tel Aviv, June 2019.Credit: Rafael Pinchas

Rosen adds: “Science, for all its amazing developments, has not solved our personal problems. … That explains why, in America, there are all these magic cures to your problems, whether they come from the East or the West or [New Age guru] Deepak Chopra.”

As to whether New Age practices and beliefs fit with Judaism, Rosen thinks it’s a matter of approach, arguing that Judaism is old enough and broad enough to contain all sorts of ideas. What’s key is that one “brings it into a Jewish context.”

In other words, if you’re going to chant, chant the “Shema.” If you’re going to do moonlit yoga, do it on Rosh Hodesh. And if you’re going to meditate, make sure your mantra is in Hebrew.

The renowned kabbala scholar Gershom Scholem once described the work of mystics as “putting new wine in old bottles” — i.e., taking the timeworn traditions of the faith and investing them with new meaning and significance.

For Jewish institutions today, the challenge might be the opposite: Putting the aged wine of Jewish beliefs and values into the new vessels of contemporary, New Age practices.

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