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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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7 Comments »

  • Michael says:

    Unreported World did an episode on the godmen and godwomen of India that’s worth watching: http://video.google.com/videoplay?docid=7478231923514169152
    It featured Amma in a fairly unflattering light as a cult leader.
    She also appears to be connected to Hindu fundamentalists: http://www.rickross.com/reference/amma/amma4.html
    I think there’s a real danger in accepting “spirituality” for its own sake as this can lead to acceptance of people who would otherwise be branded as evil. A lot of the holy men in India are a lot worse than Amma.
    But I’m guessing your review is not that glowing as you say “Her speech was inspiring, but nothing new. ” I would only ask in that case why she’d be considered any more meaningful than the Biggest Loser?

  • ariel says:

    Well written Keren!

    I agree with your assessment of Jewish education; it makes Judaism look restrictive and purposeless; the perfect religion for those with OCD!

    I only discovered the spirituality in Judaism recently and my neshama was revived; it’s a shame they don’t teach the meanings behind the prayers and rituals at school.

  • Keren,

    It’s interesting/ironic that so many Jews search for spirituality in eastern beliefs, when their own religion is so deeply spiritual. Sure, because Judaism is so prescriptive with regards day to day life, much of what any child is taught in school relates to the basic beliefs and practices, rather than to the underlying spirituality of it. The spiritual aspects of Judaism, as expounded by Kabbalah and other such doctrines are more appropriate for someone who already has the fundamentals.

    What distinguishes Judaism when viewed in this way is that it melds the physical and the spiritual. It views the spiritual as a “parallel universe” to the world we live in, rather than an escape from it. The minutae of day-to-day mitzvot like kosher and Shabbat  – the “do this, don’t do that” of Judaism that so many dislike – can be viewed very differently when you add a spiritual context. Delving into one without the other is only getting half the story.

  • Chaim says:

    David and Ariel raise valid points.
     
    Firstly in the US conservative school have hours 8:30-5pm and have 30-40% Jewish education while orthodox schools have longer hours and at least 50% Jewish education as opposed to Australian Jewish schools which have around 3-6 hours per week!
     
    Judaism could be seen as a perpetual meditation with as David says the mundane becoming supremely spiritual and meaningful. This is why there are directions and proscriptions from tying your shoelaces , cutting your toenails and going to the toilet to praying and mitzvot. Each has a spiritual significance and pertinent meditation.   The trouble is finding balance to work and spend time have a relationship with family and friends. There are kabbalah schools where they meditate and spend hours praying but they do not work. Finding that balance is key without compromising too much on either necessary function. This is where chassidut in particular has excelled.
     
    You could also perceive that everything you hear or see is a kind of prophecy and direct communication with G-d – personal particular divine providence – the leaf dropping in front of you, meeting a “random” person on the street, reading a new book etc. Each if meditated and thought over could be seen as personal message for you in order to teach and reveal to you how to be a better and more spiritual person.
     
    These messages are clearly lacking in most Jewish schools in Australia besides maybe the Chabad  Yeshivah .
     
    One clear problem which Keren may be indirectly alluding to is the lack of available spiritual leaders and role models where spirituality and holiness is palpably evident. Judaism was always a religion of revelation with prophets and holy individuals running around mixing with the masses and Gdlines being clearly seen. This has been missing now for many centuries now and is a real problem. One example was the Lubavitcher Rebbe but that is nearly 20 years…

  • ariel says:

    To expand on what Chaim says:

    There has been a case recently in the media of an elederly Indian man who says he hasn’t eaten or drunk anything for several decades and is sustained by spirituality. This idea is completely anathema to Judaism; Judaism is the middle road, between asceticism and hedonism – fusing the physical with the spiritual.

    The problem Chaim sites at the end of his post is a big one. There are numerous Rebbe’im in Israel and the US to whom one may go for spritual guidance, but the problem is the lack of local role models. Many (not all) rabbis these days seem to be more interested in running their private businesses than in nurturing souls…

  • Chaim says:

    Ariel: more than just nurturing Rabbis is a lack of holy or  G-dly Rabbis – e.g. the Rebbe, Baba Sali etc . The type where you see and experience intense spirituality through them and because of them. There are a few great Rebbeim in Israel and elswehere but they are few and usually secluded and unavaiable to the average Joe Shmoe. 

    I remember visiting one  –  Rav Weber in Meir Shearim through a friend in the late 90’s. It was an amazing experince. He seemed to be a spiritual entity with a thin superficial physical coating. Seeing him and talking to him allowed me to grasp a sense of what true spirituality and G-dliness is – something to not only believe in but to aspire to.  I understand R. Arel Serebransky is a special person in Melbourne but…

    there are others who similarly are amazing through Kabbalistic skills – tell you about yourself, what you are thinking and provide intimate personal advice and direction but they are hard to find.

  • Ross says:

    Keren,
    I enjoyed the article and the discussion of spirituality in Judaism. There seems to be a fear amongst Jews to delve directly into spirituality due to this stigma of equating spirituality with the numerous forms of new age divination. This stigma limits the progression of Jews in pursuing knowledge that they believe would be in breach of a number of passages in the Torah.
    Perhaps the wording needs closer analysis and attention in order to re-evaluate whether delving into spirituality and the meaning of life would be in conflict with a follower of the Jewish faith. I would proffer the notion that practising spirituality and Judaism is in harmony to what G-d intended, as in order to progress physically, mentally and spiritually, humanity must break through stagnancy and question life in order to uncover the answers one seeks.
    However, if we look at the Zohar e.g., the notion of reincarnation of the soul on the Earth plane occurs within a cycle of lives. The number of incarnations a soul has depends on the unique lessons one must learn here before concluding the individual souls’ unique cycle. Once the cycle is concluded, the soul advances in its progression and no longer requires another incarnation on the Earth plane. This soul is then grouped with other like souls within the spiritual hierarchy with the most pious souls closest to G-d and then others progressively further down through the spiritual echelons to just beyond the Earth plane.
    Be well,
    Ross

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