By Heinrich Pedersen, General Secreatry of the Danish Israel Mission
The fastest growing religious movement among Jewish people today is probably New Age or other movements inspired by Buddhism and Hinduism. New Age has many adherents in the western pluralistic world, but it seems like the Jewish world has included more New Age ideas and methods than other groups. In 1995 Rodger Kamenetz wrote, in the book The Jew in the Lotus: “Today in American universities there is an impressive roster of Buddhist scholars with Jewish backgrounds, perhaps up to 30 percent of the total faculty in Buddhist Studies”. 1) There are so many Jewish Buddhists that the acronym JUBU has been invented.
In almost all towns with a Jewish population, you find courses in New Age techniques or meditations. For some people the connection between New Age and Judaism is so close that New Age Judaism is synonymous with Jewish Renewal. In A Jewish Mother in Shangri-la, Rosie Rosenzweig calls “Aleph” a post-denominational New Age movement.2) The Aleph movement doesn’t want to call themselves a New Age movement but they find that meditation, dance, chant and mysticism are part of the “hidden” treasures of Judaism.3)
A lot of Israelis travel to India, Nepal and Thailand, and as part of their journey they participate in Tibetan Buddhist retreats or Yoga classes. A sign of the big number of Israelis that travel to the East is the translation into Ivrit of “Lonely Planet travel survival kit”. Another sign is the many hotels, restaurants and religious centers that cater especially to Hebrew-speaking people.
In Israel New Age festivals gather many attendants every holiday. Trance-music, tarot cards and meditation are for many young Israelis part of their Sukkoth or Passover festival. Experts say that between 150,000 and 200,000 are actively involved in New Age related movements. No Anti-mission organization works actively to stop New Age influence on Israelis. This is probably because New Age has become at new Jewish movement – New Age Judaism
Jewish mysticism – a back door for New Age
Most Christian churches have rejected New Age as a false faith, and even though many Christians have practised some form of New Age on a folk religious level, most Christian denominations have rejected the mixture of Christianity and New Age as syncretism. This is not the case in Judaism. One of the main reasons is that Jewish mysticism – Kabbalah – is an open back door for New Age.
The main reason for Christians to reject New Age is reincarnation, which is the foundation of almost all forms of New Age. Seen from a Christian perspective the thought of reincarnation is not found in the Bible,4) and most believers find it impossible to combine resurrection and reincarnation. But the thought of Reincarnation is already a part of Kabbalah and Hasidism. To the writer of Zohar, the concept of Gilgul (rotate, reincarnation) is a punishment that is put upon human beings that commit certain sins or fail to keep some of the laws.5) In the Hasidic movement Gilgul was given a more central position. The early Hasidim seized on the concept of tikkum (repair, heal) and made it even more the responsibility of the individual by shifting the focus from the cosmos to the individual soul.6). Every soul has as its purpose to develop Tikkum. Until the soul has fulfilled its purpose and achieved perfection, it is condemned to Gilgul . Because the concept of reincarnation is a recognized part of Judaism, it is possible to combine New Age and Judaism.
In the Kabbalistic system it is a fundamental idea that God is totally hidden and inaccessible – and at the same time infinite. The En Sof is utterly unknowable. In some Kabbalistic interpretations En Sof is translated as – nothing. En Sof has been compared with the Eastern (Buddhist) idea of Shunyata, which can also be translated nothing. In a dialog between Dalai Lama and some Jewish rabbis the two concepts were compared. In his personal account Rodger Kamenetz says: “As the Dalai Lama had carefully phrased it, there is ‘a point of similarity’ between the kabbalistic ain sof and the Buddhist shunyata. It would be exaggerating to say they are identical. The kabbalistic approach emphasizes that God is No Thing. But it still affirms an absolute existence – even if ineffable. In the Buddhist approach, all existence is empty because none of it has inherent reality, or absolute reality in itself.”7) Kamenetz felt a tremendous excitement in this dialog between Kabbalistic Judaism and Tibetan Buddhism. “The Most obvious and fundamental difference between the two religions is zero and one, Buddhist nontheism and Jewish monotheism. But now that the angels were talking, shunyata had met ain sof”8). In a similar meting Rosie Rosenzweig makes the same comparison between shunyata and En Sof. “All feelings, perceptions, mental formations, and consciousness come from emptiness. This certainly sounded like the Ayn Sof, the G-d of no end.”9)
Even though there are many differences between traditional Eastern religions and Judaism, it is obvious that the Kabbalistic ideas of Gilgul and En Sof are steppingstones into Judaism for Eastern religions and New Age thinking.
The paradigm of New Age Judaism
In the traditional Eastern religions, Hinduism and Buddhism, the idea of reincarnation – Samsara – is pictured as a circle. This circular way of thinking has influenced Eastern worldview.
Also history and time are pictured as a circle. In the classical Hindu or Buddhist paradigm, what happens now is not a unique moment, but it will come back within aeons. The aim for the Eastern religions is to get away from the endless suffering in Samsara. Traditionally the Judeo-Christian worldview is pictured as a line. God created the world at some point in history, and this world will have an end. The aim in the classical Judeo-Christian paradigm is to be together with God in eternity. The combination of a western linear paradigm and an eastern circular paradigm is a spiral.10) It seems like the New Age paradigm is this combination. Most New Age people say they believe in reincarnation but not in the classical Hindu or Buddhist circular way. For the New Age Jew the process is more important than the goal. They want to develop themselves to live a more spiritual or enlightened life.
New Age Judaism – a network
New Age Judaism has not formed schools, umbrella organizations, and head Rabbis like Reformed and Conservative Judaism. Like in New Age in general, New Age Judaism is a network where the different parts do not necessarily look upon themselves as part of a movement. New Age Judaism is a “do it yourself” or “homespun” religion. Every individual can make and practise his own religion. The individual is not dependent on a group that practises the same. You can choose a practice, a meditation, a healing technique or something else from the religious supermarket. In this supermarket there is everything form A to Z – from Astrology and Aura to Zen and Zohar. When you choose, you don’t necessarily look for truth, but you try to find out if it works. Then you use whatever you have chosen until it doesn’t fit you anymore. Then you throw it away, and choose another practice that is offered on the New Age market. Choose – use – and throw away. The consumer culture that influences our materialistic western world has, to some degree, in New Age and New Age Judaism been transformed into the religious world, and a “spiritual materialism” has been developed.
Many Jewish scholars have criticized New Age Judaism for being Pop-Kabbalism. “In recent times there has been a rediscovery of the spiritual riches of the kabbalistic tradition. Unfortunately, genuine interest in recovering an authentic Jewish heritage has become confused with a modern quest for esoteric exotica and a spiritual ‘quick fix’. Study of the Jewish mystical tradition requires linguistic skills and painstaking work, as well as a sympathy with the aims of the earlier kabbalists. A large number of the publications about the Zohar and kabbalah available are now compiled by people lacking these resources, some of them little more than charlatans. These books have little or nothing to do with Judaism.”11) Of course those involved in New Age Judaism have a totally different view of it: “Unfortunately, the doors to the Jewish meditation experience were closed by the nineteenth-century Jewish enlightenment, which stressed intellectual accomplishment and regarded mysticism as superstition, by the elimination of Jewish masters in the Holocaust, by exclusivity, and by fear of the dangers of meditation. Even though new revivals are nearby, more doors will be opened in the future.”12)
No matter how we look upon New Age Judaism, it is at growing phenomenon, and a phenomenon that all who work with Jewish Evangelism have to take seriously.
No matter …………
We need to meet our Jewish brothers and sisters with the gospel where they are – not where we think they ought to be. Though we may feel that they are betraying their Jewish roots by mingling their Jewishness with Eastern religions, this is not the way they see it. Rodger Kamenetz gave his book the subtitle: ”A Poet’s rediscovery of Jewish Identity in Buddhist India”. In his encounter with Eastern spirituality he claims to have rediscovered his Jewish identity. Similar remarks are common among Messianic Jews.
We are hoping to train a team to reach out to the many New Age Jewish pilgrims in the East in the summer of 2002. The training will take place in September in Israel. Some of its elements will be New Age, Buddhism, Hinduism, How to stay spiritually healthy in a New Age environment, Sharing Messiah in a New Age and post-modern Jewish context. The teamleader, who after the training period will accompany with the participants to the East, will be an experienced person who has worked in the environment for several years. The majority of those who enter the New Age milieu are openminded and tolerant – and even more so when they are on a journey. It is important that the message of Jesus Messiah is given even in this context.
11) R. Kamenetz, 1995. p. 9
22) R. Rosenzweig, 1998. p. 3
33)On their WebPages www.aleph.org they comment on their connection to New Age:
Is this (Aleph) "New Age" Judaism? Not really. Jewish Renewal is sometimes referred to as "New Age" by people who do not know that meditation, dance, chant, and mysticism have been present in Judaism throughout the ages and not, as some mistakenly believe, patched on to Judaism from other cultures or made up out of whole cloth. Sadly, some of our authentic, time-honored beliefs and practices have been lost to assimilationism, leaving many contemporary Jews largely unaware of them. This is a major reason why so many spiritually sensitive Jews have sought spiritual expression in other faith traditions. It is an important part of ALEPH's mission to make the "hidden" treasures of Judaism known and accessible to these seekers.
44) People from the New Age context argue that the thought of reincarnation is found in the bible.
Berg, 1995. p 25. : “To know the truth, we must go to the source and that source is the Bible. Ecclesiastes 1:4 states, “One generation passes away and another generation comes but the earth abides forever”. The Zohar tells us that what this verse really means is that the generation that has passed away is the same generation that comes to replace it. An identical key may be found in the Ten Commandments (Exodus 20:5), which says, “The sins of the father are remembered even unto the third and fourth generation”. This does not imply, as some erroneously have contended, that God is so full of wrath that he is not content to punish merely the sinner, but that he will inflict punishment for sin upon the sinner’s innocent grandchildren and great grandchildren as well. Who could rationally love and worship so fierce and vengeful a deity? The Zohar reveals that the truth of that verse is that the third and fourth generation are, in fact, the first – one soul returning in the form of its own descendants so that it may correct the sins cited as “sins of the fathers”.”
55) J. Winter, 2000. p.336
66) N. de Lange, 2000. p. 206-7
77) R. Kamenetz, 1995. p. 86
99) R. Rosenzweig, 1998. p. 53
110) Pedersen, 1997. p. 48-49
111) N. de Lange, 2000. p. 63
112) R.Rosenzweig, 1998. p. 168
de Lange, Nicholas: An Introduction to Judaism, Cambridge: 2000
Kamenetz, Rodger: The Jew in the Lotus, San Francisco: 1995
Winther, Judith: Jødedommen, Copenhagen: 2001
Pedersen, Heinrich: Hinduismer, Copenhagen: 1997
Rosenzweig, Rosie: A Jewish Mother in Shangri-la, Boston: 1998