Aquarius in Zion

By Yehudah Mirsky
Thursday, May 17, 2012

In the great crazy quilt of Israeli religious and spiritual life, the cluster of ideas and practices called "New Age" (in Hebrew, 'Idan Hadash) is increasingly visible.  Love it or hate it, it's around, in books, festivals, newspapers, the pronouncements of tycoons (oligarch Shari Arison proclaimed that "peace begins with me"—shortly before changing her employees' lives through mass firings), and growing networks of popular Kabbalah.  For some, Jewish or non-Jewish New Age is life's organizing principle.  Others attend festivals and workshops, participate in this or that meditation, avail themselves of alternative medicine, or visit the occasional channeler.  It is in some ways part of Israel's spiritual revival, in other ways tied to developments abroad.

The leading Israeli New Age journal is titled Hayim Aherim, "an alternative life."  But how alternative?  Where do traditional ideas and practices leave off and alternatives begin?  How does New Age relate to ordinary politics and society?  Recent years have seen the emergence of serious scholarly New Age research; and two weeks ago, a conference at Jerusalem's Van Leer Institute took the measure of the phenomenon.

The issues under discussion included channeling (whose radical individualism mirrors the ethos of turbo-capitalism), Israel's largely closeted neo-pagans (think combat soldier seeking protection of Canaanite goddess Anath), contemporary Bratslav meditative practices (transmogrifying the founder's reach for divine ecstasy and self-annihilation into self-help tranquility exercises), and New Age imagery in Israeli advertising (used mainly by established businesses that want to freshen their image and know that nobody will think they actually believe the stuff).

Some of the most interesting presentations addressed New Age politics (such as they are); the impression one got is that politics is much more evident when adherents join New Age themes to traditional religious practice.  Shlomo Fischer talked about the radical settlers known as "hilltop youth," driven by a countercultural mix of enthusiasm and authenticity: The Jewish state and its bureaucracies are illegitimate and inauthentic, while the settlers are natural, uninhibited, and close to the earth.  Asaf Tamari explicated the popular, charismatic American-born Rabbi Yitzchak Ginsburgh—best known for his volume Blessed is the Man, an encomium to the murderous Baruch Goldstein—who uses the New Age language of consciousness as change, and vice versa.  In Ginsburgh's psychologized but still violent politics, the collective consists of ontologically identical souls; proper consciousness differentiates friends from enemies, and disgust with the existing secular Zionist order is the beginning of redemption.

Though the speakers didn't say so, non-religious New Agers seem less connected to politics—which seems congruent with the turn Israeli arts and literature in recent decades away from politics and toward the private sphere, as described in Gadi Taub's A Dispirited Rebellion.  Sociologist Dalit Simchai noted ways in which New Age neutralizes political action and social criticism.  The flip-side of its belief in acceptance is the idea that suffering results from unhealthy living rather than injustice; and New Age shies away from disagreements, which it views as unwholesome forms of attachment to the world's illusions.  Adam Klin-Oron of Hebrew University, in discussing channeling, noted that whatever political dimensions the idea may have had elsewhere vanished entirely in Israel.  Some adherents believe that as more humans become channelers, light will spread and grow.  Thus, my working on myself will bring universal redemption.  None of this actually prescribes action in the here and now; like they say, "there is no compelling the light."

It's tempting, especially in light of depredations by self-styled New Age gurus, to dismiss it all as self-indulgent middle-class self-absorption dressed up as ancient wisdom and spiritual depth. But it does have points of contact with richer, more rigorous traditions, with roots in late 18th- and 19th-century romantic and esoteric Western movements like theosophy, anthroposophy, New Thought, and Buddhist modernism.  Still, how did we get from William James to the Age of Aquarius?  In the late 1970s, according to leading scholar Wouter Hanegraaff, groups in Western Europe and North America began to perceive an inner connection among ideas like holistic science, healing, channeling, and neo-paganism as an alternative to the traditional Western dualism of body and soul, science and Christianity.  New Age turned to older mystical and philosophical traditions, interpreting them in modern psychological and instrumental terms. 

The blog  of one of the conference participants, Tomer Persico, has made him one of the most consistently interesting observers of Israeli religious life. There, he's  identified a number of New Age tenets.  There is cosmic optimism, and a belief in individual rather than social responsibility for happiness.  The truth is found within.  Only I will choose for myself, less through rational choice than through experiential knowledge.  Such ideas derive from the "perennial philosophy" at the core of the world's spiritual traditions.

As New Age understands it, what is that core?  Conference co-organizer Rachel Werczberger has described a belief in the divine nature of the self, joined with the "therapeutic ambition" to "heal" this inner core from "'inauthentic' experiences and emotions" like envy, regret, and anger.  It is this overwhelming focus on the self, neatly coinciding with Western individualism and the deep logic of consumerism, that accounts for New Age's appeal to the yuppified.  As the old joke has it, Pocahontas conversing with trees and fishes is spirituality; her writing a check to the shul is religion.  

But is that the last word?  Kabbalah scholar Boaz Huss argued at the conference that in the late 19th century "spirituality," until then a synonym for religious devotion, took on its contemporary sense of the "individual and subjective core of universal religion."  Still metaphysical, it was no longer a sign of devotion to God; rather, it was redefined as the beating heart of all world religions, subtly undermining the hard, modern dichotomy between "secular" and "religious." 

Perhaps it is through this meeting between self-indulgent pap and the undeniably compelling teachings of different traditions that New Age arouses its mix of interest and disdain.  There is something maddening about the often-blithe self-assurance with which New Age draws on these traditions, showing little regard for their truth claims, internal debates, and disciplines—maddening not just in its implicit (and, sadly, inarguable) claim that one can easily live without scholars of religion but in its cavalier dismissal of those traditions' understandings of themselves. 

Yet the spiritual masters who developed the teachings and practices underlying much of New Age did so for the sake of Something, or Someone, much larger than themselves.  That reaching beyond also extends within, to the meaning of discipline and commitment to God and others, to living and regularly suffering in the here and now.  The difference between New Age and classical Kabbalah, for example, is that the former regularly gives effortless answers; the latter asks for great effort and promises no answers.  As the Zohar says, "No thought can grasp Him at all."

This isn't to say that New Age doesn't have its good sides.  As Persico has written, "New Age, thank God, is not a zealous and vengeful deity."  But, Persico added, "He is apathetic. The one thing He commands is that we discover our truest selves."  Is that true self a moral self? Whether or not we let the sun shine in, the answer to that question can be answered only through action.


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