Tag Archives: Neo-Hasidism

More on Spirituality and secularization: Yoga, Jewish Yoga, and Hasidism

The Immanent Frame has a posting on     Taxing yoga: exercise or spiritual practice?

Earlier this month, the Associated Press reported on a controversy that erupted over the decision by Missouri tax authorities to require yoga centers to collect and pay a sales tax on their classes. Yoga instructors have argued that they should be exempt from the tax “because the lessons include spiritual elements.” In this week’s off the cuff feature, we’ve invited a small handful of scholars to comment on the legal and cultural status of yoga and on the right of states to levy taxes on yoga centers.

Courtney Bender, Associate Professor of Religion, Columbia University

While the yoga teachers interviewed in the article are quite concerned that the state of Missouri considers yoga to be “entertainment” or “exercise” (unless, presumably, it takes place in a temple or a church), the category confusion surrounding yoga is nonetheless generative and valuable for those who teach it. The yoga teachers I met during a series of interviews I conducted in 2004 moved back and forth easily in spaces where they taught yoga as primarily exercise, primarily meditation, or primarily stress relief. These multiple capacities actually made it possible for yoga teachers to make a living. Likewise, it seems to me that they reveled to some degree in this possibility. They could argue that even if you didn’t “believe” in yoga it could help you.
Of course, not everyone thinks that this separation is possible—some teachers, and many outside observers, agree that it is not. But in this regard, yoga’s “spirituality” surfaces as a concern, or a danger. This Monday morning’s New York Post gives us a clear example. Several years ago New York City’s Department of Education contracted with an independent group to teach yoga and movement in dozens of elementary schools. When the Post got wind of this, it ran a story with a headline reading “‘Cult’ program in NYC schools.” Even though the techniques described seemed innocuous (if not downright silly), the reported dredged up fears of yoga as a plan to infiltrate the schools and brainwash innocents (not surprisingly, the article links the “guru” to a sexual harassment case). Within several hours of the publication of the story the city suspended this program.

1] How does this relate to our quandaries over self help and Neo- Hasidism? If I have any criteria for Hasidism of the eighteenth century  is an immanence that is enthusiastic, devekut, and mindfulness of God. The 21st century versions the immanence is about self, expression, exercise, and marketing.  Midpoints are more confusing.

2] There are now studios claiming to teach “Jewish Yoga” to emphasize that it is not foreign and to incorporate it under Jewish spirituality and Neo-Hasidism. They will do a renewal chant instead of a Sanskrit chant at the end.  I have no problem saying it is not Neo-Hasidism. But is it Jewish, Hindu or exercise (as Missouri thinks)? I ask becuase there are teachers of the dharma who find the term Jewish Yoga as offensive as Hindu Kabbalah or Christian Talmud. When the Swamis wrote to the Jews, they received a reply that this yoga is Jewish. The swamis are going Huh?!? it is our India tradition. The Jews respond it is Hasidism. My Jewish-Hindu encounter  article elicited emails to me from the Dharma side to help fight the degradation of their tradition.

Which brings us back to The Immanent Frame

Stuart R. Sarbacker, Assistant Professor of Philosophy, Oregon State University

That there should be tension between the spiritual and material culture of yoga is not surprising, given its modern history. Modern yoga, especially the posture-driven variety that is popular in North America, is the product of a particular historical moment in which premodern forms of yoga (such as hathayoga) were merged with Indian traditions of martial arts and wrestling, European physical culturalist thought and callisthenic practices, Hindu universalism, and emerging ideas of “modern science.” The shift towards scientific and secular frameworks and the focus on the body (often through intense attention to the finest of alignments in posture, such as in the Iyengar system) broadened the appeal of yoga while often pushing its metaphysical moorings into the background. As a result of this, the contemporary yoga community in the United States represents a spectrum of traditions that extend from sectarian tradition-driven studios and ashrams to “free-floating” yoga courses offered at fitness centers such as Bally’s Total Fitness.

The fact that yoga brings together the exotic overtones of Indian spirituality with the more familiar exertions of Euro-American callisthenic and fitness traditions has certainly been a driving factor in the success of yoga in North America

A Post-Secular Jewish Dharma Bum

I have a review in this week’s Forward. My original title was the one on this blog post.

Everything Is God: The Path of Nondual Judaism By Jay Michaelson

Jay Michaelson is well known to readers of the Forward for his column, “The Polymath,” a title well chosen to mitigate the frequent changes in his byline, which varied from dot-com software designer, to doctoral student in Jewish mysticism, to lawyer, to environmentalist, to poet, to GBLT activist. As one of the founders of the journal Zeek, Michaelson was one of the instrumental creators of the new Jewish culture — the hip mixture of ironic and post-ironic aesthetic gestures — which moved Jewish culture beyond baby boomer concerns. Michaelson’s theology is as diverse as his former bylines and reflects the same shift to the values of the new Jewish culture.

In this new book, “Everything Is God: The Path of Nondual Judaism,” Michaelson’s regular stream of post-secular book reviews provided the framework to work out his own popular theology, and the book reflects that history, capturing his spiritual insights in edgy 1,000-word bursts.

Skipping to the ending

Nevertheless, Michaelson does not start his reader on the long journey of transformation, nor does the book speak from a point of nonduality, as the Hasidic or Eastern religious works do. Instead, we listen to his breakneck embrace of the nondual world: Talking breathlessly about meditation, creating myriad perspectives on oneness and meeting everyone there is to meet upon the path.

The book reminds me most of the 1960s wandering independent polymath Alan Watts — an earlier articulate proponent of Asian philosophies of nonduality. Watts scandalized his straight-laced Western audience by preaching an eclectic nonduality outside of organized religion; however, Watts is more famous for antagonizing the world’s leading Zen teachers by claiming that Zen has little to do with sitting but is in fact a path of nonduality justifying “sheer caprice in art, literature, and life” — a spirituality offering a radical new worldview articulated in jazz rhythms rather than in the contemplative flavor of Zen. Like Watts, Michaelson sometimes makes grand pronouncements based entirely on his own experience.

Read the entire review here

Here was my original penultimate paragraph that was removed to keep to the word count and to remain focused on the book under review.

As I once waited backstage, before appearing on a Jewish cable TV show to discuss Judaism and Buddhism, a senior Orthodox rabbi from a staid upper crust synagogue, seeking to make conversation on my topic, confided to me how he read Alan Watts as a youth and gained many lessons that stuck with him through out life. The Rabbi never again dabbled in any other Asian thought or non-dualistic thinking, but the brief exposure to Watt’s Beat-Zen offered many lifelong tools for thought.

Most of the book is available online as articles at Zeek, The Forward, Jewcy, Reality Sandwitch.