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Spirituality within Judaism – Learnings from Amma

May 6, 2010 – 1:49 pm7 Comments

Amma. Image source: detroitevolution.com

By Keren Tuch

The air was holy.  People walked the aisles as if levitating in a state of awe.  As the holy Amma appeared on stage and performed her ritualistic puja, the audience – a mix of Indians, curious onlookers and dedicated ashram junkies- were mesmerized by her presence.  She offered words of wisdom and compassion, and an opportunity to escape the rat race through meditation.  Yes, Australia was privy to have the auspices of Amma join our shores last week.

Amma is another Jesus of the 21st Century – a compassionate beacon of hope to those who are looking for a little more meaningful than the Biggest Loser can provide.  Her rotund figure and genuine smile did indeed radiate a sense of calmness and one could see how she has been dubbed the hugging saint.  A booklet handed out at the ceremony stated that “Amma is revered throughout the world as one of the most outstanding humanitarian and spiritual leaders of our time.”  She has established a charity called Embracing the World which has many humanitarian projects in India and around the world from disaster relief to women’s empowerment and slum renovations.  More than her humanitarian work, she also spiritually embraces anyone who comes across her path, and she claims to have hugged more than 30 million people in the past 39 years.

I listened to her sweet utterances, but I did not receive my hug as I made the judgment call that an extra 2 hours sleep would be more nourishing than a hug from Amma.  Her speech was inspiring, but nothing new.  Our bodies are borrowed, and we spend too much time focusing on it.  Meditation is chicken soup for the soul and are the key to achieving a healthy mind, rather than just something for people who have nothing better to do!  We often give more importance to money than to our loved ones.  These wonderful sentiments seemed to be what honey is for Pooh Bear.  The 500+ people in the audience were seeking this reinforcement, which is hard to attain in our daily lives.

And it got me thinking.  As a product of the Jewish School system I can state the five books of the Torah, recite the morning prayers and list the non-kosher animals.  The Judaism I was taught was a very tangible practical Judaism that has a litany of commandments with a whole book of Rabbinic discussions for every one of those commandments.  One of my many teachers once mentioned it is like an instruction manual for living.  A rule book if you like.  For those that need structure in their lives, Judaism has it all.  But where is the wishy washy esoteric babble that addresses the spiritual questions?  Sure, Judaism can claim Kabbalah, but that’s certainly not the Judaism I was taught.  Ethics of the Fathers may have some gold nuggets to dig out, but it is not our primary source of reference and doesn’t quite address questions of the after life or the soul.

I was talking to a group of people about the concept of mindfulness regarding food.  It seems to be a buzz word these days with many dieticians jumping on the bandwagon trying to get people to eat slowly and appreciate the food that they’re eating as a key to not over consuming.  When discussing different ways of being mindful, we acknowledged that the hardest thing to do was the act of remembering.  It was at that moment I understood that the point of all Judaism’s minute laws was to help one to remember the holiness.  The brachot that are said before eating any food requires the individual to be mindful about what they are eating and therefore choose the appropriate blessing.  When it becomes a rule to say a blessing before putting anything in your mouth, in one way it becomes easier to be mindful.  On the other hand, after a while it may soon just become a mere utterance that is recited ritualistically and without any meaning at all.  Whilst prayer should be a time to connect with a higher source; for me, when chanting the prayers repetitively, it has become an action devoid of meaning.

It is human nature to seek meaning in life, and for some it is hard to contemplate that we will return to dust and nothing more.  Whilst Judaism is a religion based on laws and rituals, perhaps we should impress the spirituality within Judaism on those that want to continue their Jewish journey. Why leave spirituality for the new age kabbalists to claim?

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