Archive for August, 2013

Body and Sexuality in the New Religious Zionist Discourse – About the book

Guf U’miniut Ba’Siach Ha’Tzioni-Ha’Dati He’Hadash ("Body and Sexuality in the New Religious Zionist Discourse") by Yakir Englander and Avi Sagi, Hartman Institute and Keter Publishing, 2013, 267 pp.

 

In the waning years of the 19th century, Austrian psychiatrist Richard von Krafft-Ebbing wrote in his Textbook of Insanity that

[Sexual] anomalies are very important elementary disturbances, since upon the nature of sexual sensibility the mental individuality in greater part depends; especially does it affect ethic, aesthetic, and social feeling and action.

Krafft-Ebbing thus expressed a new understanding: our sexual desires were no longer solely natural expressions of the body, certainly not wicked agents of the devil. Instead, they became basic pillars of our personality ¬ that is, of modern human individuality.

In discussing "The Body and Sexuality in the New Religious Zionist Discourse" it must be remembered, therefore, that sexuality itself is a modern category, which became popular in 19th-century Europe, when it became a definition not only for practices but also of personality. Accordingly, the term "sexuality" was now given various prefixes like "hetero-," "homo-," "auto-". Nowadays it is important to look at the broad scope of the literature intended to help bring about improvement in our sexual lives, a literature that started to become widely available in the 1960s. If our sexual pleasure is such a central part of ourselves, improving it, as a central part of our self-improvement project, seems also to be obvious.

The new book by Prof. Avi Sagi and Dr. Yakir Englander is very aware of this historical background, and it tries to focus upon and characterize the current historical moment experienced by the religious Zionist public. It is successful in doing so on a number of levels and it provides important reference points for any future discussion on the subject.

As a field of research, Sagi and Englander have focused on the discourse in terms of Halakhah (traditional religious law), especially as it appears on responsa sites on the Internet. This is a public discourse by its very nature, as its rulings are presumed to reach every observer of rabbinical law and to shape their conduct. Thus they are also intended to create a homogenous "public" of a God-fearing community.

The authors have chosen to examine various models in which it is possible to find direct conflicts between the modern and the halakhic perceptions of sexuality. They have specifically examined the issues of male and female masturbation and homosexuality. The analysis they propose vis-a-vis the discourse in Halakha concerning the prohibition of male masturbation is fascinating.

the book coverThe authors bring evidence that the responsa are no longer truly halakhic in nature and have instead taken on the character of "pastoral counseling" – i.e., of spiritual guidance intended to shepherd individuals from the flock of the devout toward inner repair and spiritual perfection. This is an entirely different genre of dialogue, as the rabbi here comes across not as an arbiter of Halakha, but rather as a guide to the inner psyche, who offers an ethical path, the purpose of which is redemption of the soul.

While in premodern times it was possible to find within Halakha a formal discourse that ruled in accordance with an interpretation of tradition, the authors find that today the invocation of Halakha is marginal, and that most discussion of the question of male masturbation is in the realm of values and ethics. Thus, for example, rabbis endeavor to console the questioner who has failed and sinned, to strengthen his spirit,

imbue him with motivation to overcome his urges and present him with the choice between courageous resistance to Western trends and loyalty to what they perceive as "the tradition of ancestral Israel" which commands abstinence from self-pleasure.

The rabbi presents himself as a meta-figure with respect to Halakha, speaking in the name of a Jewish metaphysic that is not formulated with traditional tools, but rather is assumed to be in "the spirit of Halakha." He is no longer an arbiter of the legal canon, but rather a spiritual guide who knows the true path to redemption of the soul. The sinner’s confession, which is central to this discourse, is answered by rabbinical counsel, and the point to which the discourse relates shifts from the forbidden deed (masturbation), to forbidden passion and forbidden emotion (sexual craving, despair).

In so doing, the rabbis of religious Zionism, Sagi and Englander stress, are accepting the assumptions behind modern individuality. They espouse spiritual guidance that is aimed first and foremost not at maintaining divine law, but rather at redemption of the self, rectification and achievement of personal perfection and satisfaction. Accordingly, modern "sexuality" discourse also has become for the rabbis a theological starting point, and sexuality is understood as a constitutive element of an individual’s identity. Thus, prohibitions rooted in halakhic tradition exceed their formal status and become tremendous obstacles along the individual’s path to creating an ideal ("Torah-observant" or "believing") self-identity.

The modern perception of sexuality is also reflected in the stance toward homosexuality. Since the sexual act has essentially become a sexual identity, the arbiters of Halakha face three possibilities: a) to grapple with established legal tradition and permit whatever is possible in that framework (in the case of lesbianism, this is much easier); b) to change the Jewish attitude toward sexual abstinence and enjoin persons with these tendencies to abstain from sex all their lives; and c) to argue that homosexual tendencies are not natural and can be rectified and changed.

In accordance with the pastoral discourse that has replaced halakhic discourse, the authors of the book in question offer a wealth of rulings instructing men and women with same-sex tendencies, who are seeking advice, to change or abstain from sexual relations. Here too the discussion moves from Halakha to meta-Halakha, in the direction of fomenting an ethical discourse that shapes a new, pure Jew.

The perception of sexuality as raw material used in creating the religious self is also manifested in rabbinical discussion surrounding the issue of female masturbation.

In contrast to strictures relating to men in this regard, there is no express Halakhic prohibition on female masturbation Halakha. As one might have expected, Sagi and Englander find pastoral discourse on this subject too. The discourse here directs women toward a certain type of sexuality that from the rabbis’ perspective, even if not according to Halakha(!), is kosher and positive.

Following this, they go on to examine the aggregate of the perceptions of female sexuality in the new religious Zionist discourse. Their main insight is that there is no real connection between the image of the women about whom the rabbinical arbiters speak and women as living beings walking upon the face of the earth. The book presents various rulings indicating that, in the eyes of the arbiters, a woman has a fixed and simple essence: She is an introverted, passive, delicate and sensitive creature, whose sexual passion is dependent on emotion and love.

Thus, for example, there is a perception that women are not sexually aroused upon seeing an exposed male body, and therefore men are not required to cover themselves for the sake of "modesty." Even when the women who send in questions to the Internet sites inform the rabbis that they too have urges and desires, the rabbis silence them and insist that they do not, that there is in actual fact no such thing.

As Sagi and Englander write, the arbiters talk about women, not with them. This whole issue leads the authors to emphasize the male hegemony in the realm of rabbinical rulings. Ostensibly, this is obvious and self-evident, but this book stresses the alienation deriving from the fact that only men deliberate about Halakha. This creates a contradiction between the real woman and the ideal woman; the real woman is negated or else required to undergo a transformative journey to become that imaginary ideal.

Once again, pastoral discourse constitutes an arena in which the woman who observes Halakha must grapple with her image and aspirations. (In this context mention should be made of the religious Zionist organization Beit Hillel, which is promoting women – though at present tentatively and in a minor way – as rabbinical arbiters. Reading this book could contribute to an understanding of the challenges involved in this move, as well as of the huge promise inherent in it.)

The new sexuality discourse reveals the way religious Zionism is dealing with modernity at the present time. The authors take care to emphasize and exemplify the fact that there is nothing deterministic in the way this discussion has crystallized: A very different discourse could quite easily have developed, one that uses formal halakhic strictures to make it easier for the religiously observant to deal with modern sexuality.

"The Body and Sexuality in the New Religious Zionist Discourse" is full of insight, but the editing is inadequate and it is possible that readers will get lost in a maze of quotations and footnotes. It is evident that the work benefits greatly from the voice of Avi Sagi, one of the most profound thinkers in contemporary Judaism. The reader will findmany diagnoses that are fully developed in Sagi’s other books, while here they illuminate the research details and emphasize their importance.

The authors conclude with an expression of concern about the future. While Religious Zionism developed primarily with an inclusive view toward modernity, it has not succeeded in developing a halakhic discourse that has responded to its challenges. Instead, part of religious Zionish has been retreating and shutting itself up behind ideals that are divorced from reality:

In this way a historic movement, which had perceived itself as a mediating agent within Israeli society […] has developed antibodies to this mediation. The sting of this process is manifested first and foremost against itself; against the real body and sexuality, and against real women and men.

We can only hope that the other parts of religious Zionism will have the sense to embrace reality, and never let go.

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Published in Hebrew in Haaretz, 7.8.13

Andrew Cohen and the decline of the Guru institution – Part II

While I have had several spiritual teachers, I have never had a guru – one particular main (or exclusive) teacher to whom had to submit myself and open my heart, trusting him to take me, hand-in-hand, to the end of the road. There are many reasons for this, one of which I am sure, is my excess of pride and ego. In order to surrender, one has to give up one’s independence and I’ve always been too proud to do that.

Do not hurry dear readers, to conclude that it is such a good thing that I’ve never submitted myself in such a way. There is a great spiritual secret in surrender, and sometimes it is surely necessary. Surrender to an external authority is no more than, when all is said and done, acknowledgment of the uncertainty of life and of our feebleness in the face of the forces of the universe – recognition of just how diminutive we are.

Along with its risks, total obedience can be a powerful tool for self-knowledge and development. If indeed “a man’s greatest possession is his choice”, then relinquishing one’s choice is relinquishing one’s greatest possession – and there are important things to be learned from such relinquishment, from such surrender.

The guru institute is in trouble. This is not, however, one of the signs of the Age of Aquarius or of a new spiritual dawn. The spiritual teacher is not some remnant from the past that can now be discarded, since we are now modern, progressive and oh-so-clever individuals. Anyone who assumes that we have hindrances and conditionings that we cannot liberate ourselves from on our own (either because we do not see them, or because we do see them but are tempted by them), also assumes that we need help. The guru constitutes a particular, intense, kind of help.

It is hard to believe that spiritual development that would not include inter-subjective relationships would be possible at all. No Man is an Island, wrote John Donne and as Wittgenstein added – no language is private. The guru constitutes – along with the spouse and the parent – a highly significant “significant other”. The reflections that we are able to receive from the psychological mirror provided by someone close to us can be invaluable – especially if that individual possesses depth and wisdom.

However, as we have been made aware, such relationships are liable to become exploitive and destructive. In a previous article, we touched on the demotion of Andrew Cohen, one of the most well-known spiritual teachers of our time. In order to explore the guru issue, as well as the issue of Andrew Cohen, I asked my friend Amir Freimann to share some of his experiences and insights. Freimann, currently an important social activist in the field of education, director of the Education Spirit Movement, spent twenty-two years of his life in Andrew Cohen’s community, until he left it five years ago. I asked him a few questions:

What made you give so many years of your life to a teacher? What did Cohen give you in your spiritual path?

First of all, perhaps above all, meeting him created within me a commitment to the spiritual life. Until I met him I had one foot in the “worldly” world – studies, career, fame, money, women and the other foot in the “spiritual” world – existential questions, love for the mystery, attraction to the sacred, religious feelings. Even the two years I spent in a Zen monastery in Japan with a wonderful Zen teacher did not lead me to change that ambivalent position. As a result of my meeting Andrew and spending time in his company and as a result of the confidence he gave me in the validity and significance of the spiritual journey, I planted both my feet in the spiritual world. This meant that I availed myself fully to the process of closing the gap between my deepest experiences and insights and who I am as a human being.

In addition, when I met Andrew, at the age of 29, my life revolved around myself and even my “spiritual aspirations” were completely self-centered. I didn’t really care about other people – unless they could be of some benefit to me. Of course, I wasn’t aware how egocentric I was – how could I have been aware of it? But when I left the community five years ago, at the age of 50, I could say whole-heartedly “that life is not for me” and commit myself to work aimed at profound internal development of our society and culture, as well as of individuals and groups that I come into contact with and form friendships and collaborations with.

There’s something else too – thanks to Andrew I had the opportunity to participate in profound spiritual work in a community of serious, intelligent and committed people, for a period of two decades. I don’t think that such communities and such endeavors can really exist without the guidance of a spiritual teacher. I have not encountered or heard of such situations. I’m referring to a process in which I faced and engaged with many of the conditionings that distort and limit my human-ness -, the free, full and creative expression of who I am and of who we are as human beings.

You said that meeting Andrew helped you decide to commit yourself to the spiritual journey – what was it in your meeting that caused that?

When I met Andrew, in the summer of 1987, I was at the end of the fifth year of medical studies in Jerusalem. A good friend of mine, who had already met Andrew in Europe, told me that a “spiritual teacher” was visiting Israel and invited me to join them for dinner. I remember the first impression Andrew made on me – I was surprised by how young he was (around my age) and by his odd laughter. I thought to myself: “He’s just a typical neurotic Jewish guy from New York…” It was not at all how I expected an “enlightened teacher” to be, but during that evening, in which we spoke for hours about enlightenment, time and spiritual practice, I sensed that the man was the most open and vulnerable, unassuming and unpretentious person I had ever met. I felt that in his presence, a kind of tough knot within me started to relax and dissolve.

At one point during that evening I asked him what he thought the reason was that I was not yet enlightened, even after years of spiritual practice. He looked at me for a while and said “because you’re afraid”. I had no idea what he was talking about. “What do you think I’m afraid of?” I asked He replied that I would have to answer that question myself. That night I sat on my bed for hours and tried to work it out what it was that I was afraid of, until I found an answer that satisfied me. In the morning I called him and asked to meet him. When we met I told him that more than anything I was afraid that I would waste my life and die without knowing who I am, what it’s all about and what I am here for. I’ll never forget the look on his face when I said that – he was so happy! Then he looked at me very seriously and said: “You should treasure that fear, it will take you all the way.”

It was the first time in my life that somebody validated, with such confidence and conviction, my search for answers to the “big questions” and the possibility that I would find those answers myself. I felt that he knew exactly what I was talking about, and that his confidence and conviction were based not upon belief but upon his personal experience. Looking back, I think that it was that validation and his confidence and conviction – which he expressed again and again in different ways – which enabled me, within a few weeks, to undergo a breakthrough. The breakthrough came in the form of a series of experiences, which transformed me from a “spiritual seeker” to a “spiritual finder” and completely changed my priorities in life. As a result, I decided that my overriding purpose in life was to live an “enlightened life”. Since I lost all interest in my previous ambitions, I left medical school, left Israel and went to England to be in Andrew’s company and continue with him, the process of my spiritual awakening.

I’m very moved by that story. But after all that beauty, what led you to become disillusioned and leave Andrew and his community 5 years ago? Was it related to the latest developments?

The reasons for my leaving were very much related to the reason for which he was recently demoted. However, at the time when I left, neither I nor Andrew’s other senior students realized quite how severe the problem was. At that point I saw the reasons for my leaving as personal and specific to me. I didn’t realize that they were actually related to a fundamental and serious problem in Andrew’s conduct and in all our relationships with him. Only over time, particularly since I heard the news of his stepping down and read his apology and the criticisms of him, have I started to see how my story was only a symptom of a malignant condition.

Anyway, my leaving was triggered by two issues relating to Andrew and to his community. The first was that I felt that instead of moving forward and discovering new territory, as I had felt during the first 15 years or so in the community, we were now going around in circles. Despite all the bells and whistles, we weren’t actually going anywhere, we weren’t developing. The second issue, which I began to become aware of about a year before I left, was that although we said that our purpose was to participate in the evolution of consciousness and culture and facilitate it, in fact we were investing all our energy in attracting people to join us, to join our specific spiritual teaching. You could say that I started becoming aware of our ego, as a spiritual movement and as an organization, and I started feeling increasingly uncomfortable with it.

At the time I was co-managing the center in Israel, and I decided that if we really wanted to contribute to the development of the society and culture here, then we have to go out and get involved with what was happening in the society and culture, rather than keep busy only with our small center in Jaffa. The moment I started doing that, I started flourishing. Within a few months I was managing an online community called “Spiritual Culture”, interviewing cultural leaders for a column I had in Ynet, called “I Have a Dream”, collaborating with a group of educators to establish the “Education Spirit Movement” and connecting with all kinds of people who are contributing, with deep commitment and a lot of spirit, to the cultivation of depth in our society. You could say that I discovered that I have brothers and sisters outside of the community as well and even outside the so-called “spiritual world”.

Initially, to my surprise, Andrew supported me in that endeavor but at some point he must have decided that I and the Israeli center were becoming too independent, and to put a stop to that. He demanded unequivocally that we focus our energy on “inter-organizational” activities related to his teaching. At that point I started doubting his motives and developed an increasing sense of grievance towards him. Then, while I was visiting the community’s world center in the USA, he called me for a meeting and told me that he had decided to close the center in Israel and that he wanted me to return to the US and be part of the “core group” around him. At that moment something broke within me. I knew that he was completely wrong and that I shouldn’t acquiesce – that complying with his instruction would mean I would be betraying myself and all the people I had developed connections with in Israel. Suddenly the magic was gone. As soon as I said “no” to him, I ceased regarding him as my teacher. I returned to Israel as a “free man” and although I went through a lot of pain as a result of leaving him and all my spiritual comrades, who had comprised my entire world for the last 20 years, I was in no doubt that I was doing the right thing. Everything that has happened since then showed me that I was right.

From the perspective of a very committed disciple, who also knew when to move on, do you think that the “guru institute” has validity in the current Western spiritual world?

The highly unusual relationship between a spiritual teacher, rabbi or guru, and the disciple, has always offered an extraordinary opportunity for spiritual growth – as well as fertile ground for sexual, financial and mental abuse and for all kinds of pathologies. Anyone who decides to enter into such a relationship with a teacher should take into account both the rare opportunity and the huge risk involved. The way I see it – if the individual making the decision is relatively mature and sane, the responsibility for this decision and its consequences ultimately lies with him or her.

I may not be an objective judge regarding myself but it seems to me that I came out of my 22-year relationship with Andrew a better person than when I entered it – and I can testify that some of my friends in the community underwent a process of significant mental and spiritual deepening and growth. Others, as you know, had quite a different experience, and came out hurt and traumatized from the very same situation.

Based on my impressions of other spiritual communities led by a teacher, it seems to me that in those communities you often find a kind of spiritual work that would not be possible under different conditions. Yet so many people come out of such communities hurt and psychologically damaged, including people from Andrew’s community, that the damage often seems to outweigh the benefit.

What, then, are we to conclude about the validity of the “spiritual teacher institute” in our era? The conclusion is unclear to me, especially because I don’t yet see a proven substitute for this institute. I can try to imagine one but I haven’t yet seen one that actually works, so for me, the question remains open.

Andrew Cohen (left) and Amir Freimann, 1991

Published in Maariv newspaper, 26.7.13, and today aired on Integral World.

Andrew Cohen and the decline of the Guru institution – Part I

Andrew Cohen (from Wikipedia)A stranger would not understand the magnitude of the affair, a stranger might even mock it, but last month an earthquake took place in the world of New Age. A tectonic shift the likes of which the elders of Rishikesh cannot recall. It was revealed that Andrew Cohen, one of the most famous spiritual teachers in the world, and until a few years ago one of the most powerful and influential figures in contemporary Western spirituality, is about to step down as guru and resign the leadership of the movement he founded, EnlightenNext, against a backdrop of repeated allegations of tyrannical conduct and financial and mental (but not sexual) abuse of his followers. In an official message, he announced that he would soon be stepping down, and apologized to his students for the wrongs he had done them in the past. In short: he admitted that despite hopes to the contrary, he does have an ego after all.

Cohen’s rise and fall stretches across a good chunk of the annals of contemporary New-Age spirituality. He began his journey in the late 1980’s, at first as a follower and torch-bearer of the famous Papaji, an Indian guru who left many disciples. After a few years Cohen severed ties with his master, and embarked on an independent road. His spiritual teachings have undergone several transformations. At first he insisted that there’s nothing to be done for spiritual enlightenment and release, and all that is left is to want it above all else. When he saw that this path leads to spiritual experiences but not fundamental changes in his pupils he turned sharply to the other way, and tasked them with exhausting spiritual exercises, including sexual abstinence, withstanding severe physical challenges, various humiliations and repeated demands for financial donations – all supposedly designed to “break the ego.”

Over the past decade Cohen increasingly stressed a spirituality of the evolutionary type, in which each of us must sublimate his or her awareness as part of the general development of the cosmos, and for same. He collaborated with Ken Wilber, a spiritual guide in his own right and one of the most interesting thinkers currently living in the US, and with him composed a model of “evolutionary enlightenment,” which he claimed combined the best in Oriental spirituality and Western thinking.

Beginning in 1994 Cohen edited a highly popular magazine titled What is Enlightenment? (Kant apparently transcended his ego, and did not insist on copyrights), through which he raised questions important to many spiritual seekers, and no less important, set the agenda for many in that world. The magazine was an enormous center of power for Cohen, for through it he could create new stars in the New Age firmament or cast them down as he chose. However through the years the magazine became an obvious mouthpiece for Cohen’s own teachings, lost readers and became a burden to his movement (it was shut down two years ago.) Yet only last year, well past his peak, Cohen was chosen 28th among the 100 most spiritually influential people living today by Watkins Mind Body Spirit. Below the Dalai Lama, ahead of the Pope.

Tyranny, Crazy Wisdom and Lies, Damn Lies

Complaints about the high-handedness and exploitation of Cohen’s leadership began surfacing as early as fifteen years ago. In 1997 Cohen’s mother published a critical book titled “Mother of God” about her experiences as his pupil. Another book by a disillusioned follower appeared in 2003, and a third book in 2011. This last one included testimonies by some former leading students, who described a saga of degradation and abuse inflicted by Cohen upon his followers, painting the mustachioed guru as a power and expensive-gift craving egomaniac. According to the book Cohen would extort massive donations from his students, send them on pointless missions to instill humility in them, punish them for every violation of his rules and make up all sorts of tricks to keep them moving forward on the path to enlightenment. He would never admit error, and on the other hand take credit for any and all positive developments within his community. (See more here on the litany of abuse/denial/lies.)

It is worthwhile to reflect for a moment on Cohen’s attempts to react to these disclosures. At first he denied the whole matter, dismissing it as “rumors” spread by ill-wishers. Upon accumulation of the testimonies – and, it should be stressed, the growth of the Internet – Cohen realized he couldn’t just wave his hands and create a magical forgetfulness effect. He thus began to admit, and even take pride, in being a “tough teacher” and “rude”. With time the claim was made that his entire behavior can be explained away by that marvelous concept of “Crazy Wisdom”.

To those unversed in the lore of spiritual excuse-making du-jour, this concept comes from Tibetan Buddhism, where it describes the boundary, law and custom-shattering wisdom of those who have utterly rid themselves of any ego or illusion. These sages are allegedly incapable of error, since they are in full resonance with the workings of the universe. In the context of New Age as practiced lucratively in the West this concept has undergone an insidious mutation, and is interpreted as license for the teacher to cause his students physical pain or emotional crisis in order to waken them from their blindness. The problematic nature of this arrangement is clear: Since the teacher is enlightened and crazy-wise, then as much as his actions may seem ludicrous or even evil to mere human eyes, it is a-priori impossible that he is in error. Therefore, any abuse of the student is affirmed as legitimate, and even praised as a radical attempt to free him or her of all their troubles.

But as of now it seems that this too was to no avail. In recent years, largely due to increased reports of his problematic behavior, Cohen’s organization suffered the defection of top students and rather heavy financial problems. The magazine, as mentioned above, was closed, and the mansion that served as commune/HQ/ashram for the community was put up for sale. Part of the blame for this situation lies on Cohen’s shoulders: he insisted on keeping the magazine alive well after it ceased to make business sense (largely, I’m guessing, because of the power and influence it gave him). The demise of the movement’s center removed the students both from under his direct control and from the group-dynamics characteristic of such places, and allowed for more independent thought and reflexive critique. Matters reached a point that a resolution was formed saying the movement can no longer keep going as it has. Cohen was forced out.

A month ago internal email correspondence of Cohen’ community appeared on the Internet, in which the participant discuss the ways to manage the publicity of the crisis the movement will fund itself in once Cohen officially announces his resignation from the post of guru, and apologizes for some of his past actions. A day later he published the official announcement, in which he confessed that “in spite of the depth of my awakening, my ego is still alive and well.”

Whither The Guru Institution

As stated above, this can be seen as a landmark in the history of western contemporary New Age, and I would like to use it to try to examine not only Cohen, but the entire institution of the guru. One didn’t need the fall of Cohen to understand that this institution is in trouble, but as one of the most prominent teachers in the West, Cohen surely emphasizes how dire the situation is.

The problem begins with the fact that just as the term “Crazy Wisdom”, the guru institution has also been taken out of context. Spiritual teachers who gather pupils around them have existed in the Oriental religions for thousands of years, and for a thousand or more in Judaism and Islam. What’s different these days is that while in the past those teachers functioned within a constant, well-known context – that is to say, within a certain spiritual tradition – today there is often no normative framework in which gurus and their acolytes operate. The guru institution has been removed from its traditional context (“traditional” here in more than one meaning) and implanted into conditions foreign to its nature.

This should not be taken lightly. Instead of being surrounded by a system of checks and balances that can limit and stabilize him, the Western spiritual teacher in essence develops his spiritual path on his own, and therefore does not enjoy the benefit of previous generations’ experience, nor is his will bound by traditional laws and restrictions. If in the past the guru would ask the student to yield to his will on the authority of a tradition of which he was but a link, today’s guru asks his disciples to submit to him alone, and solely to his own authority. Instead of joining a veteran spiritual heritage that has withstood the test of time, today’s student binds himself to one person, original and perhaps special, but not necessarily very intelligent or responsible, and in more miserble cases merely a charlatan. Who will question his every whim? His conscience, one would hope, but sometimes he lacks one, or the spine to obey it, and the consequences can be dire.

What we see here is the magnification of the well-known problem of contemporary spirituality. Alongside the freedom to take different ideas and practices from various traditions and mold the spiritual path best suited to the individual, and alongside the personal discipline which spiritual seeking without a set tradition requires, there are the drawbacks deriving from inexperience and a lack of boundaries. In solitary seeking this situation may lead to useless paths, but when one yields the authority over her or his spiritual development to an exterior force who also lacks the benefit of experience or constraints on his actions, results can be far more troubling. Moreover, without clear rules of engagement it is very difficult to reprimand such a person or make him admit his mistakes.

And yet, a wholesale rejection of the guru institution is a solution not only devoid of real probability, but also speaks of a simplicity and lack of understanding. Spiritual teachers exist not only, as detractors would have it, because people like to surrender their freedom or fear loneliness. The spiritual teacher exists because this institution does indeed help us discover new things about ourselves. One must also recall that lacking in spiritual tradition as they were, Cohen’s students – however tragically late – did manage to free themselves of his control and put him in his place.

I myself have had many spiritual teachers, but never an outright guru. In my next article I will seek to delve deeper into the question of the guru and Andrew Cohen’s specific case. To that end I will interview a long-time student of Cohen’s who left his community several years ago, and together we shall try to understand what are the qualities, and the pratfalls, of a guru. In addition, I will provide updates on developments in the community following Cohen’s resignations. So, definitely to be continued.

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Published in Maariv, 5.7.13, and yesterday aired on Integral World


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