Torah Portion: Pagan inspiration

“Beware of being lured into their ways ... Do not inquire about their gods, saying, ‘How did those nations worship their gods? I too will follow the same practices!’” (Deuteronomy 12:30).
August 15, 2012

“Beware of being lured into their ways … Do not inquire about their gods, saying, ‘How did those nations worship their gods? I too will follow the same practices!’” (Deuteronomy 12:30).

I am struck by this verse from our parasha, because I have benefited greatly from other people’s religious practices. My ability to do teshuvah has been transformed by a style of meditation that I learned from Buddhists, and tai chi has taught me how to bring my body into davening.

My experience is far from unique. Judaism has a rich tradition of “borrowing” from non-Jews.

What is more quintessentially Jewish than the Pesach seder? Yet learning while drinking multiple cups of wine directly mimics of the Greek symposium, which predates the seder by several hundred years. The Hebrew word afikomen is based on epikomen, Greek for “that which comes after.”

Another example: The great Jewish philosophic work, Maimonides’ “The Guide for the Perplexed,” is an explicit attempt to integrate the neo-Greek philosophy and science of his time into Judaism. Living in Egypt, Maimonides wrote in Arabic, and he specifically refers to the Muslim philosophers he debated.

But even if tapping other traditions to inform one’s Jewish practice is legitimate, it’s not always advisable. Simply taking a Buddhist prayer and praying it in Hebrew, for instance, or adopting a Buddhist idea like “the interconnectedness of all life” without critically asking if it’s really compatible with Jewish monotheism, threatens the cultural and theological coherence of Judaism.

Since I study with non-Jewish teachers of spirituality, I face this problem often. I remember standing in a meadow with a Native American teacher as he demonstrated a Four Winds ceremony, urging us to throw tobacco and pray in the four directions. “I can’t do this,” I thought. “This is pagan.”

Adapting other people’s ways to Judaism is fairly easy when form trumps substance, such as the rabbis “Judaicizing” of the Greek symposium. Whereas the Greeks used the symposium to debate philosophy, Jews rehearsed their history. Whereas the afikomen signaled the beginning of an extended desert course for the Greeks, it means the “last bite of the meal” for Jews.

It is much harder when it comes to integrating spiritual truths and philosophical ideas into Judaism. Maimonides critically engaged Greek thought, and the result is a rich, philosophical work. He agrees and disagrees with Aristotle and creatively moves Judaism forward. Many of his innovative ideas, controversial at the time, were rejected by Ashkenazi rabbis. Yet, today he is venerated by all, and no one doubts the Jewish authenticity of his thought.

So, how does one decide when it’s “kosher” to learn from others?

I don’t have room here to make the full argument, but I will share my conclusion. Judaism is a comprehensive set of rituals, values and theological/cultural norms that developed in communal/covenantal context over time. All are essential components of a flourishing Jewish people and healthy Jewish identity. The test of importing a new idea or practice into Judaism is whether or not it integrates into the Jewish narrative as it unfolds over time.

To say shalom instead of om at the end of a yoga routine is nice. But when that’s the extent of your Jewish practice, it’s shallow. Authentic, spiritual practice is rooted, roots us, makes ethical demands, challenges us as well as makes us feel good, and pervades every aspect of our lives. That a non-Jewish practice avoids conflict with Jewish norms is not enough, even if one does it at the local Jewish community center.

But when yoga deepens one’s relationship with God and enriches one’s observance of mitzvot by creating experiences and teaching skills that enhance one’s Jewish practice, it is a welcome supplement.

As I stood in that meadow, feeling an instinctive “this isn’t Jewish” feeling, I suddenly remembered Sukkot. I’d been praying in the four directions — with formerly pagan fertility symbols in my hands, no less — all my life. Once I was open to it, I found the Native American ritual to be spiritually productive, connecting me to God’s creation in new and fruitful ways.

But could I pray like a Native American with Jewish integrity?

After study and thought, here is what I did. I “Judaicized” the prayers with language I learned from the Jewish mystical tradition, careful to avoid praying to anything other than the Holy One. Even though there is ample precedent in the ancient Temple rites for ritually offering tobacco, it conflicts with the Jewish norms and narrative of our time. So I dropped it. My offering is words of prayer.

Now the Sukkot ritual has deeper meaning for me. And by praying in the four directions, I engage God through connection with the Earth all year round, which, in this time of global warming, brings the ethical demands of protecting the planet higher into my consciousness.

Our parasha ends with the call to worship at the Temple. As long as we always come home to Jerusalem, with practical wisdom and critical thinking, the encounter with other spiritual paths will often prove fruitful.

Rabbi Mike Comins is the founder of the TorahTrek Center for Jewish Wilderness Spirituality (torahtrek.org) and the author of “Making Prayer Real: Leading Jewish Spiritual Voices on Why Prayer Is Difficult and What to Do About It” (Jewish Lights Publishing, makingprayerreal.com) and “A Wild Faith: Jewish Ways Into Wilderness, Wilderness Ways Into Judaism”(Jewish Lights Publishing).

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