Posts Tagged 'New Age'

A New Consensus in Israel about What Being Jewish Really Means

Two general elections within a span of five months are a treasure for any researcher, because they bring to light the issues that are most important to each group of voters.

Between the April and September elections, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu did not change, the security threats from Iran and the Gaza Strip neither grew nor shrank, and Israel’s population remained almost the same. But a new agenda that was placed at the center of the second election took five Knesset seats from the bloc comprising Likud and the Orthodox and ultra-Orthodox Jewish parties. The agenda was the relationship between religion and state, and the person who put it center stage also coined the slogan that most accurately summarizes Israel’s social and political center of gravity: “A Jewish state, not a halakha [Jewish religious law] state.”

One could say that this is the amorphous consensus on Jewish identity in Israel as it has emerged and come together in recent decades. In general terms, beginning in the 1990s Israeli Jewish society underwent two deep processes relating to its identity. On the one hand, Jewish Israelis learned to challenge the authority of Orthodox Judaism as the sole authentic representative of historic Judaism. An increasing number of Jews are shaping their Jewish identity through a wide range of alternative avenues, from pluralistic study forums, through Reform Judaism to New Age-y doctrines like the Yemima Method to the various Bratslav Hasidic courts. This is privatized Judaism, shaped by the individual to meet their cultural, social or spiritual needs. This is also a Judaism that fears for its liberty and the possibility of realizing itself in whatever way it chooses.

On the other hand, we also see in Israel the rise of an ethnic-national Jewish identity, which is based on a sense of tribal belonging and whose meaning is derived from the mission of preserving the security and prosperity of the Jewish people. This Jewish identity is ostensibly collectivist and its center is the national-ethnic (not civic) community. But the demands this identity makes on the individual are minimal, and as such it can be integrated — in a manner that is complementary, not contradictory — into the privatization process. This identity is more strongly tied to Orthodox Judaism, which it considers more authentic and “faithful,” but in the end it also undermines it.

Jewish expressions in Israel

Both social trends stem from the same source: rising individualization in the Western world. The processes of liberalization and globalization that the West is experiencing have made it more homogenous. The rules of the market and consumer culture, the discussion of human and civil rights, even popular culture in all its channels constitute a fixed framework that molds local societies into similar patterns. On the one hand, privatization and liberalization have turned people into individuals who scrupulously cultivate their own autonomy; on the other hand, these same individuals also develop anxiety about their identity. Most of them don’t want to be swallowed up into the liberal shredder and spit out as a generic Western individual. Strengthening national or ethnic identity provides a solution in this respect: The individual feels part of a unique collective while making minimal lifestyle changes.

But what happens when the individual is in fact expected to change his behavior? What happens when the government allows and even encourages increased religious influence in the state secular schools, separation between men and women in the public sphere or the closure of grocery stores on the Sabbath? What happens when it threatens to prohibit soccer games on Shabbat or the Eurovision Song Contest? Many who affiliate with ethnic-national Judaism will accept this, and some might even see it as an authentic expression of the heritage with which they identify. But many others will respond to this threat to their autonomy and their lifestyle by turning their backs on the parties that promote it.

Religious antagonism

The fault line between religious and secular is one of the most fundamental in Israel. The socialist Zionism that established the state rejected halakha and saw religion as a relic of the galut, the Jewish Diaspora, which was not only superfluous after the Jewish people returned to the land of its ancestors but was a constant threat to the establishment of a progressive, properly run state. Socialism as a mass progressive vision disintegrated, along with the decades-long rule of Labor Party forerunner Mapai and its ethos, but a fundamental antagonism toward “the religious” is part of Israel’s DNA. Add to this the perceived threat to civil liberties, and this antagonism turns into an electoral force.

The combination of this old antagonism and the insistence on personal freedoms brought Yosef (Tommy) Lapid’s Shinui party 15 Knesset seats in the 2003 election and his son Yair Lapid‘s Yesh Atid 19 seats in 2013. In September’s election it destroyed Netanyahu’s chance of obtaining a coalition of 61 seats without Avigdor Lieberman’s Yisrael Beiteinu party. In my opinion, it also prevented Kahol Lavan from weakening any more than it did. The bottom line is clear: In every election campaign in which the issue of religion and state becomes central, several Knesset seats move from the right-wing bloc to the left or, more accurately, from the right-traditional religious bloc to the central-civic bloc. These seats go not to Meretz, but to parties that offer a clear Jewish identity while also promising to preserve a secular civic space. Both Lapids offered exactly this. Now it was being offered by Lieberman and the four leaders of Kahol Lavan.

Lieberman’s slogan, “A Jewish state, not a halakha state,” precisely expresses this new, all-Israeli combination; on the one hand it emphasizes Jewish identity, while on the other hand it promises to preserve individual liberties. Moshe Feiglin had actually discovered this secret formula earlier, and during the campaign for the April election he used it very successfully with his libertarian party Zehut before he was brought down by campaign errors and Netanyahu’s skill in cannibalizing the bloc. Hayamin Hehadash, whose platform had remarkably similar messages, was hurt as a result of overly cautious wording (for example, party chairman Naftali Bennett stuttered over LGBTQ rights) and  suffered the same cannibalization. Looking forward, we can expect to see this winning combination in every party seeking the votes of mainstream Israelis.

The Haredi parties, in contrast, have maintained their strength, which is based on Orthodox and traditional Jewish voters, for whom personal autonomy and the secular  civic space is less important. The religious Zionist movement is caught in between: Its Haredi minority completed its takeover of the now-defunct National Religious Party (after obtaining similar, if less complete, control of the community’s educational institutions). In the process it alienated a majority of Israelis and even a majority of religious Zionists, who fear for their autonomy no less than secular Israelis do. Bennett and Ayelet Shaked, who in September ran together with Bezalel Smotrich and Rafi Peretz as Yamina, did not gain additional Knesset seats, suggesting that voters recognized that the alliance with the Haredi Zionists would stifle their relatively liberal voice.

Privatized traditionalism

Both election seasons shattered the religious-Zionist dream that secular Israelis wanted a knitted-kippa leadership. It turns out that secular Jews prefer — surprise! — to vote for secular politicians, whether Likud or Kahol Lavan. Beyond that, we are seeing the end of a process that began in the 1990s, with the National Religious Party’s unequivocal affiliation with the right. That move turned religious Zionism, which had always prided itself on being the “hyphen” that brought together Haredim and secular Jews, Torah and science, past and future — into just another right-wing party.

For religious Zionism, the movement toward individualism on the one hand and ethnic nationalism on the other undermined the halakhic dimension. Along with turning the settlement enterprise into a central tenet of faith, identifying with the political right replaced halakha as the fundamental basis of religious-Zionist identity. Bennett and Shaked’s Habayit Hayehudi party accepted secular right-wingers, but would never have accepted religious leftists.

The two components of Yamina represent two opposing responses to this process. Bennett and Shaked are nothing more Likudniks with a twist, and the platform of their party was not materially different from that of Likud on matters of religion or foreign policy. This model won them around a dozen Knesset seats in 2013, and presumably that was their peak. Politicians such as Smotrich, Peretz and Moti Yogev, however, seek to return the topic of religious law to the fore. But in an age when civil liberties and even liberal causes such as feminism and LGBTQ rights are becoming part of the Israeli consensus, such a move will confirm the party’s place as a small Likud satellite.

The combination of Jewish ethnic nationalism and individualistic liberalism has thus become the main intersection of the range of circles making up Israeli society. Likud, which was founded on a blend of nationalism and liberalism, could have been the primary beneficiary of this situation, had Netanyahu not become completely dependent on his alliance with his “natural partners,” which repels his voters. Kahol Lavan gained from Likud’s loss but it now faces a dilemma since in the absence of a unity government it, too, is dependent on the Haredi parties.

But the importance of the current situation goes well beyond the political arena. The evolving Jewish identity represents a sort of privatized traditionalism, grasping on to a heritage that is dependent upon the will of the individual and custom-made to fit. It is a dynamic, creative Judaism, but it’s also egocentric, and the liberalism it demonstrates toward the Jewish direction (from weddings outside of the rabbinate to LGBTQ rights) does not generally extend into the non-Jewish space. This is Judaism in Israel in the early 21st century, and it shows us that most Israeli Jews will not relinquish their Jewish identity, but at the same time they will rise up against religious coercion and insist on individual liberties, at least for themselves.

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Published in Haaretz, Oct. 29

Neo-Hasidic Revival: Expressivist Uses of Traditional Lore – Academic Article

An academic article of mine has been published in the latest issue of Modern Judaism, under the title Neo-Hasidic Revival: Expressivist Uses of Traditional Lore. As I write in my introductory  words, I aim in the article to analyze Neo-Hasidism, expounding its ideational and sociological birth, briefly reviewing its development and history, and elaborating on its current place and importance in the efforts made to "renew" Jewish religiosity and to "modernize" (i.e. de-mythologize, individualize and psychologize) the Jewish tradition by its contemporary well-wishers and popularizers in Israel. The lion’s share of the article is devoted to the examination of three examples taken from the Neo-Hasidic field in Israel: Rabbis Shimon Gershon Rosenberg, Israel Isaac Besancon and Yitzchak Ginsburg. These serve as test-cases which differ in a structural way one from the other, and as such will allow us to decipher their common underlying principals.

The article is on the Modern Judaism site here. I am not allowed to hand out the article itself, but its full text is here in pdf, here in scribd and here in my academia.edu account.

Neo-Hasidism & Neo-Kabbalah in Israeli Contemporary Spirituality: The Rise of the Utilitarian Self

2014-07-24_14453922An academic article of mine was published yesterday in the Alternative Spirituality and Religion Review (ed. James R. Lewis), titled Neo-Hasidism & Neo-Kabbalah in Israeli Contemporary Spirituality: The Rise of the Utilitarian Self. To quote the first paragraph, I try "to explore the rise of what can be called ‘the utilitarian self’ in the contemporary spirituality arena in Israel. This social reality, which has its origins in the religious field of late nineteen century America, is in Judaic social circles quite a recent development, and has begun to play a significant part of Israeli contemporary spirituality only since the 1990’s. I would like to suggest that the proliferation of certain Neo-Kabbalah and Neo-Hasidic movements since the 1990’s is indicative of its rise. By examining these we can better understand the utilitarian self, which lies at their background and presents the cultural conditions for their popularity."

I use the works of current Orthodox Neo-Hasidic popularizes of the teachings of Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav, Rabbis Israel Isaac Besancon and Erez Moshe Doron, to understand how the adjustments and modifications they had made to Rabbi Nachman’s Hitbodedut practice reflect the growing prominence of the utilitarian self as a religious reality. I then continue with the non-Orthodox Neo-Kabbalistic movements – Rabbi Philip Berg of the Kabbalah Centre and Rabbi Michael Laitman of Bnei Baruch – which fashion an up-to-date version of Rabbi Yehuda Ashlag’s socialist Kabbalah, and also display such an interpretation of the spiritual path.

The article ends with an attempt to place the above analysis within a theoretical framework that seeks to understand the roots and development of the utilitarian self. I see it as a particular hybrid of the Romantic spirit and Enlightenment rationalism, joined together by the auspiciousness of capitalist instrumental reason. It represents the current fascination with finding ways – indeed "methods" or "techniques" – which will allow one to actualize and exercise her or his “hidden” or “unrealized” capabilities in order to undergo an inner transformation and maximize the external conditions of her or his life.

The article is part of a special issue of the journal dedicated to Israeli contemporary spirituality, edited by Shai Feraro. You can fine the entire issue here. My article can be downloaded here. I am not allowed to hand out the article itself, but its final vertion and full text are here in pdf, here in scribd and here in my academia.edu account.

Post-Humanism, Post-Theism – Religion and Ethics in the Trans-Human Project

I am crucified with Christ: nevertheless I live. Yet not I, but Christ liveth in me, and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by the faith of the Son of God, who loved me, and gave himself for me. (Galatians 2:20)

It is the beginning of the sixties, the first sixties ever, and St. Paul is disclosing his own personal transcendence, which he understands as redemption from Original Sin. He is no longer himself, but another lives in him – or is it through him? His very self is transformed and altered – it is no longer “he” who lives. Something very dramatic has happened to his spirit or his soul. As for his bodily life, the life he lives “in the flesh,” it is also changed: It is now lived “by the faith of the Son of God,” sustained, perhaps even animated, by a higher power.

2014-06-07_192818There is nothing new, then, in humanity’s attempts to transcend itself. Quite the contrary: Religion and post-humanism have been intertwined, sometimes even synonymous, since what has been called “the Axial Age” – in other words, the era, around the middle of the first millennium B.C.E., when religion and philosophy became self-reflective, universally inclusive and emphasized self-cultivation through ethical rites and processes. Indeed, the Moksha of Upanishadic Hinduism and Jainism, the Nirvana of Buddhism, the Ataraxia of the ancient Greek philosophical schools, and the redemptive “putting on” of Christ for early Christians – these are nothing if not post-humanist and trans-humanist visions thorough which the individual transcends and transmutes his or her self.

The Ecstacy of St. Paul, Nicolas Poussin, Oil on Canvas 1643

Truth be told, for almost 2,000 years, the West has turned its back on post-humanist projects, and busied itself with the proper construction of man. Partly due to its Judaic heritage, partly inspired by the Hellenistic traditions (especially the Aristotelian and Platonic), the Christianized Roman Empire sought to establish its association with Truth not through rejection of man, but by placing him (and sometimes her) in a proper dialogical relationship with God, or The One.

Being the ultimate Other, the transcendent divine of Jewish, Christian and Muslim monotheism held within itself the Truth , and required any who wished to partake of it to look to “Him” for answers. This yearning “upward,” toward the transcendent, ceased in the first centuries of the Common Era to be actualized through mystical ascent and apotheosis for all but a very select elite, and for most believers meant instituting an inter-subjective and dialogical connection with the great Other, often through sacred texts and rituals.

Through a process that Hegel would later refer to as the master-slave dialectic, this double-ended relationship intensifies and empowers not only the master – in our case, the transcendent God – but also the slave – in our case, the religious human. The Western perception of the human being was configured as an autonomous individual in large part through its understanding of itself as a dialogical partner engaged in an intentional relationship with the divine Other.

Humanism thus owes many of its roots to the religious traditions of transcendent monotheism. It is against and toward the transcendent divine that Renaissance man, and later the Protestant reformers, laid down the first tracks of the humanist project, a project that even at its highest ideological point, arguably at the end of the 18th century with the American and French revolutions, relied on God for the origination and continual securing of (what was beginning to be called by then) human rights.

It is not hard to understand, then, why the decline and final fall of the transcendent, monotheistic God has presented the humanist vision with a fundamental challenge. The destruction of the transcendent idea, brought about by the consolidated processes of the rise of the naturalistic perception of the universe, the de-mystification of life caused by the scientific revolution and the augmentation of inner-worldly and subjective sources of morality and authority (such as rational-analytic thinking, or inner – “spontaneous” and “natural” – feelings and passions) made the idea of a transcendent God either unnecessary or unthinkable, and brought about wide-ranging unbelief, on the one hand, and a different kind of religion, on the other.

It is to that last kind of religion that I will turn now, as I would like to propose that it is the basis for both the modern spiritual search, as displayed in the contemporary spirituality milieu (sometimes referred to as “the New Age”), and to the different groups engaged in a trans-human soteriological quest, based on technological achievements and scientific, or quasi-scientific, assumptions.

Singularity and monotheism 

Now, when referring to the religious characteristics of the technological quest for the improvement and transcendence of man, I am not just addressing the obvious points of resemblance between ideas such as Ray Kurzweil’s “singularity” and monotheistic Messianism. As can be understood by the title of Kurzweil’s 2005 book “The Singularity Is Near: When Humans Transcend Biology,” there is not even an attempt to camouflage the clearly Messianic patterns of discourse.

I am also not speaking about groups such as the Raëlists, the Immortalists, the technopagans or the Luciferians, all of which have distinct religious themes and characteristics, and display clear and even conscious use of religious symbols and ideals.

I am referring rather to the structure of this religious quest, its form more than its content. For it is the form of religion that has fundamentally changed over the last few centuries in the West, leading to a process of secularization that is much more post-theism than a-theism. By post-theism, I mean a religion that is not centered around the grand old monotheistic transcendent king, but one that is concerned with what Foucault would call “the care of the self.” It is a religion that manifests itself less as a communal faith, based on collective rituals and rules of social conduct, and more as a personal spiritual quest, or in a word: an ethic.

It is not, then, only a matter of free choice and the private fashioning of the faith. The turn from traditional organized religion toward an individual voluntary one is also the turn from traditional ritual and law toward the individual’s concern with his or her own spiritual perfectibility. It is this change that we must note well, for it is this which ties the contemporary spiritual scene to the post- and trans-human projects at this time.

Now, to understand this religious metamorphosis, we must appreciate the dramatic consequences of the loss of the transcendental monotheistic god. Note that the assumption of a transcendental source of authority and truth is closely associated with a binary view of reality that presents clear dichotomies between presumed opposites such as this world and the next, nature and man, matter and spirit, body and soul, and man and woman. Moreover, in order to appropriately obey our God, we must fully embrace only one part of each binary couple, and seek divine truth by rejecting the latter and yearning, as it were, up and away from our earthly existence.

The elimination of the transcendent God has made this-worldly reality the focus of our religious life. It is in our present condition that we seek truth and redemption, through the phenomenal world as we see it, be it nature, our body, our mind or our feelings. A system of ethics, which regularly includes moral tenets and meditation practices, is supposed to bring us, by adherence to it, to full realization of religious redemption (whether spiritual liberation, emotional balance, or unification with nature).

In a way, this is a return to the transformative type of religiosity displayed by St. Paul, as mentioned above, and by Hellenistic Epicureanism and Stoicism, Upanishadic Hinduism and some strands of Buddhism. It is also the type of spiritual life we can sometimes find in the mystical traditions of the West, such as Sufism, Kabbalah, neo-Platonism and Hermeticism. What makes the current state of affairs in the West revolutionary in this respect is the magnitude and prevalence of this religious logic. From being the esoteric approach of a distinct elite, it has become the obvious and evident religiosity of the masses. Indeed, it is the dialogical “covenant” made with a transcendent God that has become a rarity in contemporary Western culture (though more in Europe than in the U.S. and Israel, of course).

I see trans-humanism, being the view that humans can and should (be permitted to) use technology to transform the human organism, as a specific creed within this major religious current. As with many New Age spiritual paths, it aimes to improve the individual condition in order to achieve superhuman goals, such as extended memory, bionic strength, full immunity to disease and even immortality. It thus offers a way towards private redemption, the difference from most of contemporary spirituality being that instead of a practical rule of ethics, it uses advanced technology for that purpose.

But the effort to improve and transcend the human condition is mutual. As Patrick Hopkins writes in an article entitled “Transcending the Animal: How Transhumanism and Religion Are and Are Not Alike”:

I see transhumanism as a reaction to the perceived oppressive and disappointing limitations of given human nature. Like religion – but unlike accepting or coping secular humanism – transhumanists want strongly to transcend the animal and actively work toward doing so. Unlike merely hoping that transcendence can occur, transhumanists aggressively pursue the physical practices, the technologies, that could make transcendence a reality.

What I would add to Hopkins’ account is that this specific type of religion, in which active effort is made to transcend the human “animal” in this very life, was, as stated earlier, quite rare in the West during the last two millennia, and has only since the second half of the 20th century become a wide-ranging, mass phenomenon. I wish to note that trans-humanism is located as a specific stream within this mass phenomenon.

The strategic flaw in the trans-human endeavor

And yet, there is a fundamental difference between the varied trans-humanist projects and the various spiritual paths, and it is this difference that eventually directs these enterprises toward quite opposite routes. We must remember that for almost all the religious mystical paths, transcending the human body was closely tied with transcending the human self. As St. Paul proclaims in the opening quote: “Yet not I, but Christ liveth in me.”

For Epicureanism, Ataraxia was achieved by understanding that the self is no more than a conflation of material particles, and not an ethereal soul. For strands of Hinduism, Moksha was realized when the individual understood that the Atman was in fact not the personal self, but identical with the one universal Brahman. For Buddhism, the goal was to realize that there is no separate self at all, and for different Hasidic courts, the self was the Godhead itself. Indeed, one could define the mystical quest (and I heard this brilliant definition from Moshe Halbertal) as the very process of gradual or abrupt de-selfization and de-individuation. These patterns of purpose and intention are still maintained within contemporary spirituality circles today.

In contrast to this, the trans-humanist project seeks to maintain the very same human self that exists at the outset of its path. That self may be improved upon, made stronger or smarter, may even be immortalized, but it will not be essentially changed, and definitely not annulled. I see this as a principal distinction between these two projects of “care of the self,” and as a strategic flaw in the trans-human endeavor.

The reason I see this as a fundamental mistake on the part of the trans-humanists (judging from their point of view, at least so long as they want to forward human freedom), is because the self that is imagined to be improved upon and immortalized is no more than a particular human cultural construct, specifically being the rational analytical self of the Enlightenment, itself a secularized version of the Judeo-Christian soul. This view of the human self was presented explicitly first by Rene Descartes, and fully developed in the works of Emanuel Kant. Taking this self to be the true or real human self is erroneous, and disastrous for any work built on that assumption.

To give a quick example of this assumption I would like to take two recent movies: “Her,” directed by Spike Jonze, and Wally Pfister’s “Transcendence.” In both these films, a human or human-like intelligence is “uploaded” or created to or in a computer. This intelligence acts as a sentient being, or in simple words – a self. On the other hand, this trans-human self has no physical body, and “moves” through cyberspace at will.

I propose this view of matters, shared by many post- and trans-humanists, is totally false, and is built, as said, on the Enlightenment’s secularized Judeo-Christian soul. As with the Judeo-Christian soul, it does not take into account the unbreakable bond between our mind and our body. I am not arguing that only brain tissue – and not silicon chips – can produce consciousness. I’m not a substance chauvinist and certainly believe that, as the saying goes, “it ain’t the meat, it’s the motion.”

What I am saying is that our consciousness is dependent on our body to understand itself as well as to function. I cannot go into this in proper length, and will just stress that we are embodied creatures and only through the body can we make sense of ourselves and our world. That is why we use our hands while talking, even on the phone. That is why we think better while walking. That is why our languages are filled with metaphors of space and time in order to comprehend mind and spirit. Indeed, even words like “superhuman” and “trans-human” are spatial metaphors, and “post-human” a temporal one.

In the film “Her,” the protagonist, played by Joaquin Phoenix, makes love to his artificial intelligent partner, and she actually has an orgasm – without a body. I think the very fundamental ways in which our body affects our feelings, emotions and consciousness and in which these are dependent on it are mistakenly ignored in this post-human fantasy.

To understand how much we are indebted to the Judeo-Christian soul when we imagine an out-of-body consciousness, I would like to suggest we try to imagine a cow’s consciousness being uploaded to a supercomputer. At first glance, it must be considered easier to upload a cow’s consciousness to a computer than that of a human, a cow’s consciousness being that much simpler. But we are unsuccessful in imagining a cow’s “self” living a virtual life within cyberspace. I believe we are unsuccessful in this because we grant special status to the human mind, and that because our view of it is, as said, the Enlightenment’s secularized Judeo-Christian soul.

When the female protagonist in “Transcendence” (played by Rebecca Hall) talks about her partner (Johnny Depp) and claims that “his mind is a pattern of electrical signals … we can upload his consciousness,” she is simply using pseudo-scientific mumbo-jumbo to secularize the idea of a separate soul, able to disconnect from the body. When her partner accomplishes said uploading and claims “my mind has been set free,” he is plainly delivering the trans-human secularized version of the “hallelujah” shouted by the religious individual reborn in Christ.

The view of the self in much of trans-humanism, is, then, no other than a secularized version of the Judeo-Christian soul, thrust through the prism of the Enlightenment and “technologized,” as it were, to update it for the 21st century. It is a particular view of the human self, time and culturally bound, and quite oblivious – as its archetype, the soul, was – to the fundamental and unbreakable tie between the mind and the body.

Following this philosophical blunder – another. This view of the human self is static within the trans-human project, meaning it is not to be changed or transformed, even while the human body is changed or transformed “around” it. This is fundamentally different, as stated earlier, from the dynamic view of the self in different spiritual traditions, a self going through metamorphosis.

Here we come to another principal difference within these two currents of the contemporary endeavor for the transcendence of man. As C.S. Lewis put it as early as 1944 in his The Abolition of Man:

For the wise men of old, the cardinal problem had been how to conform the soul to reality, and the solution had been knowledge, self-discipline and virtue. For magic and applied science alike, the problem is how to subdue reality to the wishes of men: the solution is a technique.

Or, we would say today, technology. And it is those wishes of man, subduing reality, that also disclose the ethical bankruptcy of trans-humanism, for when those wishes are fulfilled they will set human life in one determinate direction. Thus, changing reality instead of ourselves, we will perpetuate the dictatorship of our self as it is today, reducing choices and options for alternative lifestyles and setting the standard for any human existence to come.

As C.S. Lewis says, these future men will be “weaker, not stronger: for though we may have put wonderful machines in their hands, we have pre-ordained how they are to use them.” Without changing our selves, “Each new power won by man is a power over man as well.”

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The article was presented as a lecture last month in a conference titled Oh Man Oh Machine: The Politics & Aesthetics of Posthumanism, Tel Aviv University. It was published yesterday in Haaretz.

Death of a Neo-Kabbalist: Philip Berg passes away

The note on Berg's death (his wife Karen to the left) from The Kabbalah Center's site - click picture to get there

I haven’t written for a while, all due to an academic paper I am toiling at and absolutely must finish soon, which deals with a certain aspect of current spirituality in Israel. Just as I was writing, and just as I reached the part dealing with Neo-Kabbalah (Bnei Baruch, The Kabbalah Centre), came word of the passing of Phillip Berg, founder of The Kabbalah Centre. If I were into Kabbalah I would of course have deduced that this is no coincidence, but rather a sign and an omen and message and a signal, but I’m not really into that, and so I won’t deduce. What I will do is write, because ignoring this occasion isn’t an option.

It is not an option, because Phillip Berg is probably the greatest popularizer of Kabbalah ever. No man in human history showed such tenacity and creativity in spreading “the wisdom of Kabbalah” in every direction possible, including the addition of women and non-Jews to the circle of Kabbalah. Berg built an empire of Kabbalah that numbers tens of thousands of members, who are active in over forty centers worldwide, from Hong Kong, through Tel Aviv and Berlin to Buenos Aires.

The fiscal value of ‘The Kabbalah Centre’ is currently estimated at hundreds of millions of dollars (some two and a half years ago an investigation against the center was launched by the IRS), at it serves as a magnet for Hollywood celebrities such as Madonna, Ashton Kutcher and Gwyneth Paltrow. Furthermore, the echoes of The Kabbalah Centre reach far beyond its registered (and paying) members, and Berg’s phenomenal success in getting multitudes of people interested in the Jewish teachings of the occult brings Jewish content into the spiritual field of our times, which is mostly dominated by variations of Christianity and imports from Oriental religions.

Rabbi Ashlag’s Modernist Kabbalah

Rabbi Yehuda Leib AshlagLike other branches of the neo-Kabbalist explosion since the 1990’s, Berg is the spiritual offspring – spiritual bastard, some would no doubt say – of Rabbi Yehudah Leib Ashlag. Rabbi Ashlag (1885-1955), one of the greatest Kabbalists of the twentieth century, was born in Warsaw to an upper-class Hassidic family and was exposed fairly early in life both to Kabbalah and the scientific and ideological developments of the fin de siècle. In 1921 he arrived in mandatory Palestine and spent the rest of his life in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv developing his interpretation of Kabbalah and in attempts to disseminate it.

Ashlag presented a modern interpretation to Rabbi Luria’s Kabbalah, combining a Hegelian historical perception, a Marxist vision and psychological insights. One can say that he “stood Marx on his head,” for although he borrowed from him the vision of an egalitarian, collectivist society, he added to Marxism the Kabbalist exegesis regarding the inner structure and logic according to which the world works, including the necessity of divine influence on human transformation that must occur in the course of achieving a model society. For Ashlag, general salvation meant a collective transcending of man over his egotistical needs.

To elaborate, the shift from egocentric life to an altruistic existence can occur, according to Ashlag, only by the spreading the wisdom of Kabbalah and its mass study. When the denizens of the world realize that Kabbalah gives them the only key to understanding the universe, they will clearly see the need to erect an egalitarian society that cares for the needs of its individuals. Then they will be free to observe the commandments and concentrate on “bestowing” – bestowing plenty on others – which will bring about their metamorphosis from egotistical beings to altruistic ones – that is, for Ashlag, divine ones. This will launch a new era of peace and brotherly love. (For further reading, see “Altruistic Communism – Rabbi Ashlag’s Modernist Kabbalah” by Boaz Huss, here [Heb, PDF].)

The Extended Ashlag Family

click to enlarge

Although he tried, Rabbi Ashlag failed during his lifetime in breaking through the walls of the ultra-orthodox society and spreading his teachings further. But he had students whose followers do so today with great success, even if they are hostile to one another. In the above diagram (and also here) you can see the distribution of the tree of sons and students of Rabbi Ashlag to this day. Legend: Vertical – generational sequence; Straight lines connect fathers and sons; broken lines connect teacher and student; the dotted line connects husband and wife; To the left of the broken vertical line are the followers of Ashlag whose view of Halakha is unorthodox. It must be stressed that these are only Ashlag’s central followers. If anyone spots an error, I shall be glad to be corrected.

And so, on the right are various Ashlag brothers and ultra-orthodox Ashlag students (The Ashlag brothers fought amongst themselves over the copyrights to their father’s writings). A little to the left, Adam Sinai and Yuval HaCohen Asherov represent two different organizations for the dissemination of Ashlagian Kabbalah: Sinai with HaSulam and Asherov as the student of Rabbi Mordechai Sheinberger, who himself heads the ultra-orthodox/Ashlagian village Or HaGanuz. Other students of Sheinberger not mentioned here are Moshe Sharon and Rabbi Arik Naveh.

Among the “Left Ashlagians,” if I may call them such, there are currently two very large neo-Kabbalistic movements, and several others of lesser scope. Rabbi Michael Laitman, who studied with Berg early in his career, went to study later from Ashlag’s son, Rabbi Baruch Ashlag, apparently due to criticism he had regarding what he saw as Berg’s overly liberal interpretation of his master’s teachings. After Baruch Ashlag passed away, Laitman founded Bnei Baruch, where he offers the same liberal interpretation, more or less. I have written about Bnei Baruch previously on this blog.

On the left we also find Shaul Youdkevitch, a student of Berg’s who recently left The Kabbalah Centre and started a Kabblah center of his own. The sole woman in this diagram is Karen Berg, who currently runs The Kabbalah Centre, and her sons from Phillip, Yehudah and Michael, who also run the Kabbalah empire at present, and look certain to keep running it in the future.

Neo-Kabbalah and pseudo-science in the land of endless opportunities

Neo-Kabbalistic red stringBerg was born Shraga Feivel Gruberger in 1927 (or 1929) in Brooklyn. He was ordained as an orthodox rabbi at age 22, worked as an insurance broker and made quite a fortune in real-estate. In the 1960’s he began to study Kabbalah, first from Rabbi Yitzhak Levi Krakovski, a direct student of Rabbi Yehudah Leib Ashlag (who also received his permission to leave Israel and spread Kabbalah among US Jewry, placing his children in orphanages for the purpose). Then he lived for a while in Israel, and studied under Rabbi Tzvi Yehudah Brandwein. He became Brandwein’s right-hand man, and went to the US to raise funds to spread Ashlagian Kabbalah. In 1965 he established the National Institute for Research in Kabbalah in New York, which would later become his Center for Kabbalah.

Brandwein passed away in 1969. Berg, after getting divorced and remarrying the current Karen Berg, embarked on an independent path and began attempting to spread Kabbalah in his own. At first he distributed books by Krakovski and Brandwein, but as of the 1980’s began writing Kabbalah books on his own. In her excellent book (although somewhat too favorable to my taste) about The Kabbalah Centre, Jody Myers follows the evolution of Berg’s teachings (for instance, by tracking changes in different editions of his books): At first we find popular Kabbalah intended for Jews, which emphasizes its connection to the Halakha. From the 1990’s onwards it becomes a universal wisdom intended for all mankind whose connection to Halakha is tenuous at best. Unsurprisingly, from the nineties onwards The Kabbalah Centre experienced phenomenal growth.

It was not only the targeting of non-Jews which produced the impressive business growth. As of the nineties the Kabbalah offered by Berg underwent a general re-branding. It was then that Berg began to emphasize the utilitarian nature of Kabbalah for the individual: Kabbalah, he taught, enables each of us to achieve spiritual development, peace and serenity, finding true love, economic prosperity and physical well-being. All this goodness will certainly come to us, for Kabbalah according to Berg is after all a science. The Kabbalistic science also enables the production of “Technology for the Soul” (a Kabbalah Centre trademark) in the form of red laces ($26), holy water ($2) or a set of The Zohar books ($415). Thus, quite ironically, Berg used Rabbi Ashlag’s altruistic Kabbalah in order to sell utilitarian, egocentric self-help spirituality to the masses.

This was the background for Rabbi Professor Arthur Green attacked Berg fiercely two years ago, arguing that he took the dregs from Kabbalah, rather than the cream. Instead of spreading the wisdom of Kabbalah, he exploited the fears and dreams of his students to sell them a package containing pop-psychology, superstition and magic, all wrapped in a greedily-priced string of red wool. The tradition of Kabbalah deserves better, Green concluded. One may say that Berg turned Kabbalah into a Jewish version of Yoga, or the various forms of Oriental meditation – that is, a universal “method” expropriated from its traditional context and repackaged for the Western capitalist market.

But let us return to Berg himself. In the year 2000 the Kabbalist Rabbi announced that Kabbalah, in essence, guarantees eternal life. In his book Immortality: The Inevitability of Eternal Life published in that year, he ties the unison of awareness of Kabbalistic Messianism with the unison of body cells and their transformation into embryonic stem cells, which guarantees not only the blissful union of our awareness with the divine spirit but also the prolonging of our physical lives for ever and ever. This neo-Kabbalistic, pseudo-scientific, hyper-capitalistic spiritual babble took a frying pan to the face when Berg himself suffered a brain stroke in 2004. The disillusion caused several members of the Centre to withdraw, but most accepted the explanation that Berg was needed for holy endeavors in heaven, and was therefore neglecting his corporeal body on earth. His death no doubt completes his summons to heaven. As befitting a Kabbalist, he was buried in Safed.

Modern Kabbalah, Post-Modern Neo-Kabbalah

Hebrew Kabbalistic name of God tattooed on Britney Spears' neckWhat is the difference, then, between Kabbalah and Neo-Kabbalah? As mentioned briefly above, Rabbi Yehudah Leib Ashlag’s Kabbalah was already a modernist Kabbalah (I have written about this (Heb) regarding Rabbi Sheinberger’s “Ummah” movement). So, for instance, is Rabbi Kook’s Kabbalah, as he was also greatly influenced by modern philosophy and even more so, by the zeitgeist of his time. Thus it would be incorrect to compare Rabbi Berg’s Kabbalah (or Rabbi Laitman’s) to Rabbi Luria’s Kabbalah and find great differences, since the Kabbalah of Ashlag and Kook is also very different from Luria’s. And yet, we can easily point out several important differences between Berg’s Kabbalah and that of his teacher, Rabbi Ashlag.

First and foremost, of course, would be the connection to the commandments and the commitment to halacha. With Berg there is no necessary connection and no commitment. Second, and no less significant, the focus on the individual and his or her spiritual development rather than on the higher worlds and their correction. The openness towards non-Jews and women is also an important difference, as is the turning of Kabbalah into the centerpiece of a religious movement that is deliberately and consciously not part of Judaism as a religious tradition or a nation.

All this does not mean, despite all the reservations that many of us apparently feel toward it, that this is a Kabbalah that is not a legitimate offspring of Jewish tradition. It should also be said that alongside reports of financial exploitation, many report that the movement has helped them bring order into their lives and has done them good. And yet, it is likely that The Kabbalah Centre will continue its current trend of being more of a business than a spiritual movement, and as Arthur Green has written, Kabbalah deserves better.

Sources

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


Tomer Persico

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