The Blurring Starts from Within
By Yehonatan Garb | 19/11/2009
Along with the true value inherent in the search for the sublime and the spiritual, the New Age is also characterized by a lack of critical analysis, tremendous commercialization, and a retreat from dealing with society's problems in order to "connect with myself." Dr. Yehonatan Garb examines the meaning of the privatization of power in the New Age movement
"Who in Power"
(Leonard Cohen, Who by Fire)
One of the striking phenomena in the intellectual and social life of recent decades is the unprecedented rise of mystical and magical trends. This phenomenon, that is frequently called the "New Age," is quite widespread and influential in Israel, and it can be regarded as a new "sector," in addition to the sectoral division characteristic of Israeli society. This sector crosses the existing sectoral bounds, such as the "religious" and the "secular."
Israel, disproportionate to the number of its inhabitants, is an important importer of the New Age. Every year the country is visited by dozens of teachers who hold well-attended workshops in alternative medicine or in mystical and magic practices. Publishers specializing in New Age literature have already translated hundreds of works on these topics. Israel, however, is also a high-ranking exporter of mysticism and magic: Israeli or former Israeli teachers are active in the East and the West, and methods that originate in Israel, such as the Avi Greenberg or the Feldenkrais methods, are very successful abroad. Consequently, the New Age phenomenon should be viewed as an important component in the process of Israeli globalization: a social-cultural change of decisive importance for life in today's Israel. Among other consequences, globalization means that the phenomenon of Israeliness can no longer be understood without the world context.
Kabbalistic teachings began to be increasingly incorporated in the New Age movement in the last decades of the twentieth century. On the one hand, entire Kabbalistic circles, especially the successors of Rabbi Yehudah Ashlag (1885-1954), the author of the Ha-Sulam commentary to the Zohar, absorb values and methods that have their source in general mystical dispositions; while on the other, these and other circles disseminate Kabbalah on an unprecedented scale, to the extent that it has become a sort of international movement that has long crossed the boundaries of the Jewish world; the most famous example of this process is, of course, Madonna.
We can indicate several types of criticism directed against the contemporary revival of mysticism. This phenomenon received a cool response from rationalist circles, both secular and religious (the most prominent among whom is Yeshayahu Leibowitz), that take a negative view of mysticism and magic in their classic forms, as well, and therefore are concerned by the rise of these forms of discourse in our time. I do not share this position, since I regard mysticism and rationalism as different expressions of the cultural and psychological wealth of the human experience throughout the generations. In my opinion, mysticism is an authentic expression of the search for the wondrous and the sublime, which is shared by artists and poets (the issue of magic is more complex, and I will touch upon it below). But even those who view mysticism itself positively can certainly criticize several of the current and more popular aspects of the mystical discourse.
Criticism of another type is "internal," and is the continuation of a lengthy tradition. Mystics from different religions warned against the use of mystical practices in order to obtain material or personal benefit. Furthermore, they were critical of focusing on subjective experiences such as ecstasy, and at times even depicted such experiences as diverting attention from the sublime spiritual goals of the mystical path. Thus, the Spanish mystic John of the Cross (sixteenth century) wrote that one must wean oneself of the search for experiences, just as an infant is weaned from his mother's breasts. In other words, he was critical of an immature conception of mystical life. Similarly, when the great Sufi mystic Muhyi al-Din Ibn al-`Arabi (thirteenth century) criticized Sufi dances (that enjoy great popularity at present), he negated the diversion of mystical life to a sort of amusement. Many more examples could be brought for this principle, to which I will return at the end of this article.
In the Jewish context, many Kabbalists emphasized that the aim of Kabbalistic practice is a "high need," or the strengthening of the upper worlds, and not a "common need," or personal gain. According to R. Meir Ibn Gabbai (a leading sixteenth-century Kabbalist), one who incorporates the intent for personal gain in his divine service is like one who brings "nonconsecrated objects into the Temple Courtyard and profanes the Holy of Holies" (Avodat ha-Kodesh 2:6). Even Kabbalists who were more tolerant of intent for a personal result (such as R. Hayyim Vital, the outstanding disciple of R. Isaac Luria) stressed that the Kabbalist himself must receive "his portion last" (Shaarei Kedushah 3:8). The notion that the end purpose of human service is the correction of the divine world is one of the chief characteristics that distinguishes the mainstream of Kabbalah from other mystical systems. Kabbalists who belong to this orientation repeatedly argue that the Kabbalistic way is located within a broader context of the service of the Lord, by means of observance of the commandments and the correction of traits. Thus, for example, R. Hayyim Vital sets the full observance of the commandments and the fundamental rectification of one's traits as a condition for using mystical techniques in the quest for the prophetic experience (Shaarei Kedushah 3:3). In a similar vein, internal restrictions on the study of esoteric teachings are prevalent in the Kabbalistic literature (in addition to the well-known external restrictions based on age, Torah knowledge, or marital status).
The "Personal Power"
I would like to suggest an initial direction for a critical study of the New Age phenomenon, concentrating on the concept of "power." This concept, that occupies an important place in the current mystical discourse, is an effective tool for examining the changes that have occurred during the transition from classical mysticism to its current counterpart.
In classical Jewish mysticism, conceptions of "personal power," of a select individual or "tzaddik," appear in numerous compositions, and at times - as in the Hasidic movement - they even fashioned social structures. These conceptions, however, were combined with many additional forms of power, such as that of the Sefirot; the sacred site; the Hebrew tongue; the Torah, and more. Most of the personal power was channeled to strengthening the power of the supernal entities. Current-day Kabbalah, in contrast, places increasing emphasis on "personal empowerment," accompanied by a decline in the standing of more traditional emphases, such as the power of the Torah. This profound distinction is easily perceived if we compare a composition such as Nefesh ha-Hayyim by R. Hayyim of Volozhin (a pupil of the Vilna Gaon; nineteenth century), that is entirely a paean to the individual's devotion (while negating the personal intent) to the power of the Torah, on the one hand, with contemporary Kabbalistic works that give prominence to this empowerment and the personal benefit that is made possible as a result of Kabbalah study (like the title of the book by Michael Laitman - from the circle of Rabbi Ashlag - An Experience Named Kabbalah). The highlighting of "personal empowerment" is part of current-day Kabbalah's gradual merger with the New Age movement, while blurring the unique and Jewish nature of the Kabbalah.
We presumably could argue that important streams in the Kabbalah of recent generations, especially the circle of Rabbi Kook, emphasize the power of the Jewish nation. It is true that the rise of the "national mysticism" is a prominent characteristic of the change undergone by the world of Kabbalah during the twentieth century. If, however, we take an in-depth look at the development of Rabbi Kook's circle in our generation, we discover, there too, the trend of the "privatization of power." On the one hand, those in the "yeshivot ha-kav," the religious-Zionist yeshivot that accept the authority of R. Zvi Yisrael Tau (who left the Merkaz Harav yeshivah on the background of his negation of the academization of the institution), advocate the "inner" activity of special individuals, while negating external social and political activity (as was shown by Dov Schwartz in his book Challenge and Crisis in Rabbi Kook's Circle [Hebrew]). These circles accordingly are inclined to distance themselves from the mores of the Israeli public at large, with the belief that these special individuals' dedication to "pure" study is the way to "strengthen the people's spirit."
On the other hand, many from Rabbi Kook's circle today, who are engaged in the dissemination of Rabbi Kook's censored diaries (Hederav [His Chambers] and Shemoneh Kevatzim [Eight Collections]) emphasize the personal element in his writings, that was repressed in the early stages of the circle's development. The poetical texts in which Rabbi Kook called for liberation from social, and even halakhic, shackles in favor of the realization of one's self-destiny and singularity are now given prominence. An additional example of the "privatization of power" in the contemporary national mysticism is the phenomenon of the "hilltop youth" in the territories. These are similar in some of their mores to New Age phenomena, and act in an anarchistic and individualistic manner, while casting off political restraints, and those of the law and religion. In a certain sense, this is a worsening of the "Jewish underground" from the 1980s, that championed the individual use of force, while violating the laws of the State of Israel.
The enhanced importance of the personal model of power in the Kabbalah of recent decades meshes with the trends prevalent in New Age circles. The preoccupation with self-empowerment and other types of self-fulfillment leads to an abandonment of the Israeli public sphere by many who belong to this movement (or sector). The outstanding political expressions of this trend include the decline in the voting rate among the well-to-do strata. The belief that "peace begins within" resulted in a lessening of the commitment to social or political change, which can be charged to the fostering of personal tranquility. It is not coincidental that this slogan was marketed by those with money (who were engaged at the time in the firing of hundreds of employees). The expression "privatization," that I chose to characterize the emphasis of personal power in the New Age context, too, was not picked by chance. This movement's notion of the privatization of power closely meshes with the ideology of late capitalism, together with the exploitation of the movement by vastly powerful commercial forces. In many senses, the New Age movement is a sort of gigantic industry that produces many consumer goods, such as festivals, books, cosmetics, medicines, CDs, workshops, etc.
Mysticism today is not only a product, but a brand name, as well. Many people pride themselves on their participation in Kabbalah classes (together with movie and rock stars), or use a degree in alternative medicine as a tool to advance their social standing; or, in other words, as a status symbol. In a world in which the acquisition of education has patent socioeconomic import, there is a constant search for "indirect" and speedy ways to acquire knowledge that will gain recognition and profit. Accordingly, there is a clear social stratification among New Age circles, and a distinct division between those who are exposed to more prestigious mystical brand names - because they have the wherewithal to take courses abroad or to purchase expensive products - and those forced to make do with the consumption of more popular brand names. An example of a brand name of the first sort is the Kabbalah disseminated by some members of Rabbi Ashlag's circle. Ironically, the views of this Kabbalist, whose teachings have become a means for clearly capitalistic marketing, were close to socialist conceptions. This was part of his psychological teaching that centers around the conversion of the egotistical "will to receive" to the altruistic "will to influence."
And now we come to the "external" criticism of the socioeconomic consequences of the current rise of mysticism. From this perspective, the commercialization of mysticism can be seen as part of the enslavement of the political world, and that of the spirit, to economic forces. As was noted by the social critic Ivan Illich (a former priest, whose anarchistic criticism of modern society draws upon his religious consciousness; his book Deschooling Society also appeared in Hebrew translation), contemporary Western man is "homo economicus" ("economic man"), who experiences the reality through concepts of profit and consumption. From this respect, it is not surprising that current New Age culture is, to a great degree, characterized by the search for shortcuts, that exchange the lengthy and tortuous process of mystical training and the correction of one's traits for miracle formulas for quick self-empowerment. These include magical objects (crystals, "holy water," and the like); and repetition of sayings/mantras that are capable of changing the reality (affirmations). Here, too, we can speak of the decisive difference between this phenomenon and classical magic: while in the latter, the use of incantations is part of a general belief in the power of sacred speech, the New Age searches for "magic words" that lack any substantial cultural-religious context, and therefore the use of "the names of God" by some members of Rabbi Ashlag's circle is not especially different from the use of the name of the Indian god Krishna by members of the Hari Krishna sect.
The following phenomenon provides an additional example: seminars lasting only a few weekends give their participants the title "Master," in exchange for paying a considerable amount of money. An accompanying phenomenon is the broad circulation of the passive model of mystical practice, in which the one performing the exercise gives himself over, and becomes a vessel in the hands of external forces with whom he "communicates," whether this is "the soul of the Ari [R. Isaac Luria]" (as in the book by Shula Yisraeli, Come through New Gates), or extraterrestrials.
The latter trend is an additional expression of the problematic political consequences of the New Age movement. One of the dimensions of the privatization of power is the cult of personality of the elect individual, such as the "guru" or "tzaddik." Thus, despite the rhetoric of connecting to one's self that is prevalent in these circles, in practice they foster passive self-abnegation before authority figures of this type. The increased power of "Masters" and "Babot" (such as the Baba Sali in Netivot - trans.) - that, in turn, is fed by the increased passivity of the believers - is the other side of the retreat from activity in the democratic public expanse brought about by the New Age movement.
The Decline in the Power of the Halakhah
In the Jewish context, the rise in power of the "tzaddik" is matched, for many in the New Age's religious wing, by a decline in the power of the halakhah as a system that creates meaning. For them, the power of the elect individual stands over that of the halakhah, as can be learned from the writings of Mordekhai Gafni and Ohad Ezrachi, who spread a popular version of radical Hasidic teachings, those of Avraham Zaddoun, the leader of a faction within Bratzlav Hasidism, and also (in a more suggested manner), in the teachings of Rabbi Yitzhak Ginzburg, a Habad Hasid who has become a spiritual authority for many settlers. Ginzburg also encourages actions against individuals that run counter to accepted moral principles; inter alia, he distributed a pamphlet entitled Barukh ha-Gever (literally, "Blessed Be the Man") in support of Baruch Goldstein. In this case, the decline in the standing of the law goes beyond the halakhic context and spills over into the political realm, while violating basic ethical mandates.
Demoting the halakhah from its central standing is an additional example of current Kabbalah's blurring of Jewish mysticism's clearly Jewish characteristics. Self-abnegation before the spiritual leaders also accompanies a more general New Age orientation of repressing criticism, presumably in the name of "harmony" or "positive thinking," that are perceived as contrary to analytical analysis or to indicating the phenomenon's negative dimensions. Only one of many possible examples: the most important magazine among New Age circles is Hayyim Aherim (Another Life), which has thousands of subscribers and tens of thousands of readers. One would be hard-pressed to find anything resembling critical journalism among the magazine's reviews of hundreds of methods, teachers, and practitioners. To the contrary, at times it seems that this is actually hidden advertising, of the kind that dominates the media today. Hidden advertising is also very widespread in New Age literature in general. Thus, the last in the series of Harry Potter books exalts entrepreneurs who sell "bewitched" toys. This is a sort of advertising for toys accompanying the Harry Potter movies, one of the most profitable industries in the world.
In contrast with the social critique of the type presented here ad elsewhere, a much more optimistic look at the phenomenon is presented, for example, by the sociologist and theoretician Philip Wexler, who views the current mystical wave as a new form of social organization, that bypasses the public arena and its characteristic power relationships. Wexler writes in his book The Mystical Society of the trend in the New Age movement to refresh and revive the spiritual elements in contemporary society. In the Jewish context, we could also mention Rabbi Shagar, the head of the Siah Yitzhak yeshivah and a source of inspiration for religious-Zionist circles who seek spiritual vitality. In his book Kelim Shevurim (Broken Vessels: Torah and Religious Zionism in a Postmodern Environment) he looks quite sympathetically at the New Age phenomenon, which he regards as an opening for the spiritual renewal of the Jewish religion.
My criticism of the New Age movement, too, in no way means to offer a sweeping denial of such a ramified phenomenon. Patently, the revival of mysticism in our time enabled the release of talents and tendencies that had been thrust aside or disparaged in the past. Additionally, the New Age greatly spurred the publication and dissemination of mystical traditions thought to now to be esoteric. Scholars, especially, reap the rewards of this development. Specifically, however, the connection between the rise of mysticism and globalization poses a threat, and blurs the unique characteristics of different mystical ways, that become like products on the shelves of the spiritual supermarket. Thus, for instance, in certain bookstores the books of the greatest mystics are removed from the front shelves in favor of magical objects and popular guides for quick self-empowerment. In this way, a trend that should have contributed to cultural diversity served forces that threaten the wealth of the life of the spirit (just as they advance the accumulation of material wealth in an unequal manner). Furthermore, in my opinion it is specifically that wonderful and unique character of the mystical experience that must be protected against the trends of superficialization and commercialization that are so common in the New Age culture. Consequently, the "internal" critique of the ways in which mysticism are spread is much more trenchant than "external" criticism. Here I part ways from those postmodern conceptions that have no room for the distinction between "depth" and "surface," and obviously for criticism of the superficial and populistic dissemination of mysticism. If the conclusion to be drawn from postmodern thought is that there is no essential difference between the Zohar and the works by Philip Berg, the director of the chain of "Kabbalah Centers," then such a thought might not be the last word. At this juncture, we should recall the Zen proverb: "Both flowers and weeds are part of the way of the Buddha, but people like flowers and do not like weeds, and this, too, is of the way of the Buddha."
One of the pioneers in spreading Tibetan Buddhism in the west, Chogyam Trungpa (Rinpoche), was critical of the phenomenon of spiritual materialism. Trungpa used this term to refer to a more covert phenomenon than the use of spiritualism to attain material gain or social status. His intent was to the use of a sense of spiritual elevation to fortify ego and identity, when the goal of the mystical path is to weaken these limiting structures, in order to open up to an unknown and mysterious expanse. It seems that even when the New Age is not guilty of simple materialism, it is tainted, for the most part, by spiritual materialism of the sort that Trungpa described so aptly. We will therefore conclude with Trungpa's lament for our period from the sadharna (directives for meditative practice) of Mahamudra (a meditative method prevalent in Tibetan Buddhism): "Use is made of dharma [Buddhist teachings] for personal gain, and the river of materialism overflows its banks. The materialist view rules all, and the consciousness is intoxicated from the vanities of the world."
Dr. Yehonatan Garb teaches in the Department of Jewish Thought at Haifa University
translated by Ed Levin