Howie Katz responds to Dovid Sears

Howie Katz is a local yoga instructor who has a deep interest in combining Judaism with Yogic wisdom. Here he responds to several of the points made by Dovid Sears.

Critique to Dovid Sears Review- by Howie Katz

Once again, we are indebted to Rabbi Sears for stating the Orthodox objections to positions advanced by Rabbi Glick, and for doing so in a clear and unapologetic manner, a manner without either rancor or sectarian polemics. Our concern is, after all, for the truth, and this type of discussion greatly enhances the search for it.

My major objection is to R Sears’ comments regarding Torah vs. Wisdom. (As a side note, and to perhaps to muddy the waters a bit, it is worth noting that the Sanskrit word Jnana actually means “wisdom”).

R Sears’ view is stated succinctly as follows: “Yoel Glick means something else by ‘Torah’ than most of us do. I think he means that other nations not only possess common-sense wisdom and scientific know-how, but spiritual knowledge – something of the Divine.” And “…our argument is primarily over the concepts of Torah vs. Wisdom. Yoel would extend the meaning of the former while I would extend the meaning of the latter.” This is followed by a quote from Maimonides about the unique revelatory status of the Torah, communicated through the foremost prophet, Moses. This quote is understood to refute the view of R Glick that there is Torah – and not merely Wisdom – among the nations.

I believe that what we have here is a category error on the part of R. Sears. The entire thrust of R. Glick’s book is about meditation, and the spiritual heights to which it can bring the practitioner. Vedanta and other Hindu-derived spiritual disciplines, such as Yoga or Buddhism, are the spiritual practices in question. The crucial point is that neither Vedanta nor classical Yoga is text based; neither relies primarily on a revealed text that is infallible as the means by which one can attain God-Realization. Indeed, both traditions are rather wary about what they sometimes scornfully refer to as “book knowledge.” What brings the practitioner to the desired state, variously called “enlightenment,” Moksha, Samadhi, “Mukti” etc. is saddhana – intense spiritual practice, and not the central reliance on a text or texts.

Indeed, Sri Ramana Maharshi, though he had the Vedas read to him every day in his ashram, felt the classic texts useful primarily as a confirmation of what he himself had directly experienced in the depths of his soul. To be sure, there is what is called shradda, or faith, but this is not in texts; rather, it is faith in the possibility of going beyond conditioned human existence, eliminating the attachment to the ego, and realizing one’s True Self as the one with Divine Consciousness. (None of this is to argue, by the way, that various forms of Hinduism do not believe in something we could call “Revelation.” However, the meaning of this term and its relationship to foundational texts is very different from what these terms mean in Judaism. For an excellent discussion of this see the volume entitled Veda and Torah, by Barbara A Holdrege).

All of this is to say that R Sears’ objection to R Glick’s assertions that other nations (especially India) possess Torah is, to my mind, irrelevant. The unique revelatory status of the Torah is not being “challenged” by the Bhagavad Gita, the Yoga Sutra, or any other text because Vedanta and other Hindu darshanas are not primarily about texts (although there is certainly no lack of them). The “Torah” that R Glick posits as existing among other nations is, in the case of his book, the meditation techniques, rituals, and other practices that allow the practitioner to go beyond conditioned human existence and realize his or her essence as the Supreme Self. These practices and this view are not dependent on a divinely revealed text.

My argument might seem to fly in the face of the quote from R Glick’s book, cited by R Sears – “The Bhagavad Gita, the Dhammapada, and many other texts provide profound wisdom and moral righteousness.” Note, however, the phraseology – “profound wisdom and moral righteousness.” The “Torah,” in my view, resides in the practices that bring the practitioner to Self-Realization, or Jnana. It may be that here, I diverge from R. Glick as well as from R Sears.

photo (c) D. Sears

The second major issue I would like to address is prophecy. R Sears is at pains to firmly reiterate the traditional view that Moshe is the “Master of all prophets” who “perceived matters clearly,” in contradistinction to other, lesser prophets. Here, I would make two points:

1) The Self-realization/Enlightenment of Sri Ramana, Ramakrishna, etc. is of a radically different nature than the Nevua of Moshe Rabbeinu. Indeed, so different are they that I think it is difficult to make comparative statements at all.

I would argue that the term “prophet” does not apply to the Indian non-dual masters, and that, indeed, the use of the term “prophecy” to describe highly evolved spiritual states in Hinduism is problematic. Though Moshe and the Indian masters both share R. Glick’s “bottom line” of Pure Consciousness/mystical experience (a point to which I will return), the similarities end there. Moshe’s Nevua was the transmission of a very specific set of texts laws, etc. i.e. the transmission of substantive content, while the Enlightenment of Ramana and Ramakrishna was their direct, experiential “knowing” of who they truly were, which filled them with bliss (Ananda). To try to hierarchically “rate” these two numinous experiences, and to place the Indian masters in a subservient position seems to me a profound misunderstanding.

I should also state that that I understand R. Glick’s statement about the “bottom line” of prophecy being “mystical experience” rather differently than does R. Sears. For me this means that any prophetic experience must, by definition, include a “mystical” element, an element of Absolute Silence, and feelings of Absolute Awe. Prophecy is not an Internet chat room with God. However, the fact this this is a defining “bottom line” does not rule out the subsequent communication of content in the form of Divine Commands, etc. In discussing the prophet Elijah, for example, R. Glick notes that the true Nevua was to be found in the Silence i.e. the Still Small Voice. This does not, however, rule out the subsequent communication of Divine directives, and I do not see where R. Glick argues that it does.

Finally, I would like to return to one of the foundations of R Sears’ critique: the statement in Eichah Rabbah that “If someone tells you that the nations possess wisdom believe them, but if someone tells you that they possess Torah, do not believe them.” Here, I have a number of questions/objections. My first is a perhaps rather naïve sounding observation and question. This statement in the Midrash is, in fact, just that – a Midrash! How, and more importantly why, did it get elevated to canonical status? There are, after all, quite a few Midrashim in rabbinic literature. Many are either understood allegorically,reinterpreted or ignored altogether. Why is this one considered so important?

There are a number of answers to the above questions, some of them not especially pleasant. One answer, of course, is the tendency of all monotheistic religions, Judaism included, to posit an absolute claim to the Truth, with no possibility of error. The notion that other spiritual traditions and practices might share in the truth and be equally valid paths–i.e, religious pluralism–is anathema to the Orthodox tradition. Here, we can do no better than quote R. Sears himself: “If this denotes a perrenialist there-really-is-no-difference “new testament” (of Universal Consciousness), why should anyone pack up and go to Jerusalem at all?”

Indeed, that is the crucial question. If “we” are not entirely correct and “they” are not completely “wrong,” does the entire practice of Judaism really become superfluous and, essentially, a waste of time? Seen in this light, the elevation of the above Midrash serves an obvious purpose: to ”plug the holes” against any notion that other spiritual communities might be equally true.

The Indian spiritual traditions, it must be said, are quite a bit more positive and pluralistic on this point. It is assumed that people will practice Yoga/Vedanta because it brings them into union with God, and this union and the associated practices are not undermined by admitting the validity of other paths. There is no concept of avodah zara if a person has an alternate mode of worship, no threat of “kareis” if one does not follow a particular deity or Yogic path. Yogis presumably do not get up at 4:30 AM to practice Yoga Saddhana because they are afraid that, if they don’t, Hanuman (or Shiva, or Kali or Krishna) will cut off their souls.

The idea that Jews do not have a monopoly on “Torah” is deeply threatening to many Orthodox Jews. This demonstrates, to my mind, a profound pessimism and sense of fragility concerning traditional Jewish spiritual practice. As R. Sears seems to indicate, the logic is that, if we are not absolutely and uniquely correct, why would anyone keep Shabbos, Kashrut and other mitzvot? The answer might be – because these practices bring Jews closer to God, even as the practices of other spiritual paths bring their adherents closer to God. Ironically, some anecdotal evidence even suggests precisely the opposite of what R. Sears believes: many Jews who practice Yoga/meditation are actually brought closer to, rather than driven away from, traditional Jewish practice. Indeed, there are more than a few cases where Indian gurus directed their Jewish followers to return to traditional Jewish practice.

Opening the window might not destroy the foundations of Judaism; it might even strengthen them.

Third, I disagree most with R. Sears is in his categorization of R. Glick’s book as a ‘Parah Adumah’, to ‘purify’ those of us who have practiced yoga, Vedanta, and other Indian spiritual practices. Because we are immersed in a spiritual world of ‘Tumah’, it is necessary to wean us away from this, and R. Glick, with his experience and knowledge of all things Indian, is an ideal person to accomplish this. The ideal, of course, is to never have engaged in any spiritual practices outside those of Orthodox Judaism. Thus, R. Sears sees R. Glick’s book as a form of kiruv, which he embellishes by citing the mystical experiences and practices of numerous Hasidic leaders and Mekubalim.

R. Sears’ attempt here is certainly in keeping with Orthodox theology and practice; I simply disagree with it. If one can enhance one’s state of consciousness by using practices from India, then go for it – even if Orthodoxy disapproves. Furthermore, R Sears is at pains to establish that the Jewish spiritual leaders cited developed a level of awareness that is at least equal to, if not superior to, that of Sri Ramana etc. He chides R. Glick for not availing himself of Jewish teachers and studying with Indian ones instead. His position is a vastly more sophisticated version of a slogan heard in kiruv circles: “It’s all in Judaism!”.

What, however, if ‘it’ isn’t? What if Indian spiritual practices do lead a given individual to a higher state of consciousness than the parallel ones cited by R. Sears? His short answer is – tough. Loyalty to the Torah and its’ boundaries come first. And if one resonates more with Jnanis rather than Rebbes – that’s also too bad. Interestingly, R Sears implicitly acknowledges a problem here – the highest goals/practices of Judaism are those related to this-worldly mitzvoth/Talmud Torah. Higher states of consciousness and their associated practices may be available within Orthodoxy, but they are hidden, oblique, and not really accessible. Would it not stand to reason, then, that traditions such as Vedanta and Yoga, which have a ‘one-pointed’ focus on these issues (to use a yogic term), would be a better place to access higher states rather than a spiritual practice that views Jnana/Samadhi/Moksha as ‘at best a sideshow?’, in the words of a previous commentator here.

To be clear; I do not think that R. Sears is ‘wrong’ or incorrect in his characterization of halachic/hashkafic limits to engaging in other spiritual practices. I simply do not agree with them, nor do I agree that reaching for higher states of consciousness is a secondary goal, after the ‘meat and potatos’ of Halacha and Talmud Torah are fulfilled. Of course, if possible, the search for Jnana should, ideally, be conducted within Jewish parameters. However, I, unlike R Sears and his religious co-thinkers, would not be averse to stretching – or in some cases crossing – those boundaries.

2 responses to “Howie Katz responds to Dovid Sears

  1. Here is a popular Kabbalist (Michael Laitman an adherent of the Ba’al Ha-Sulam tradition) who, unlike most, actually disparages meditation, likening meditators to people who devolve to the level of plant life and possessing limited desire:

  2. Are there no meditative breathing practices native to Jews?:

    “What is [the vowel] חוֹלֶם [ḥolem]? It is the נְשָׁמָה [neshama] soul – its name is חוֹלֶם [ḥolem]. If you תִּשְׁמַע [tishema] listen, your body will be תַּחְלִים [taḥlim] reinvigorated, in the future of its builder [cf. BT Berakhot 60b: My God, the נְשָׁמָה [neshama] soul, that you placed within me is pure… You will take it from me and restore it to me in the time to come]. But if you rebel against it, there will be חוֹלֶה [ḥoleh] illness, on your head, and חוֹלִים [ḥolim] illnesses, on its head” (Bahir 40).

    נְשָׁמָה (neshama) soul, shares a root with נְשִׁימָה (neshimah) breath, and thus our Bahir passage can be interpreted to mean: תִּשְׁמַע (tishema) listen, to your נְשִׁימָה (neshimah) breath.

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