Let me tell you a secret: After my bar-mitzvah (the ceremonial step from childhood into adulthood for young Jewish men), I was convinced that I had learned everything Judaism had to offer. I could read Hebrew, lead the prayers; I knew Torah stories, could even offer some midrash (commentary). So, I said, my journey in Judaism is complete.
I pursued spiritual fulfillment from other traditions, and I ultimately settled into Paganism, and Wicca in particular, for about three or four years.
Then, well, then I was Jewish again. Let me explain.
I am, as any true Gemini is, wholly and entirely indecisive: I summed it up to a friend recently by saying, “I want everything and its opposite.” This level of ingrained (uncertainty? ambivalence? wide-spread, multifaceted curiosity?) means I take a long time to decide anything–and that is no different for my spiritual and religious pursuits.
So, yes, I decided fairly quickly that Judaism had nothing to offer me, but before I “abandoned” the faith of my forefathers, I gave myself a task: I had to read the entire Tanakh (the “complete” written Jewish bible, including the Torah [Five Books of Moses], the Nevi’im [Prophets], and the Ketuvim [Writings]). So I did this. And I wasn’t moved.
One test is never enough, however, so while I actively pursued (and actively practiced) other faith traditions during this time, when I became a teacher’s aide at Hebrew school, I invested myself wholly in the endeavor: whether I was practicing Judaism or not, it was still a part of my roots, and through that cultural connection, still felt meaningful to me.
I also installed a third and final test: Since I was working towards a trip to Israel at the time, I told myself I wouldn’t entirely turn away from Judaism until after the experience, because if being in Israel couldn’t awaken my latent Jewishness, nothing else could.
Long story short: Reading the Bible changed nothing, and the other tests didn’t matter.
Like my decision to leave Judaism, my decision to return came slowly and, although unintentionally, deliberately. The teachers I worked under taught me little nuggets of Jewish wisdom that helped me realize I hadn’t learned all that Judaism had to offer. After all, when I was told the entire book of Esther is entirely about the women in the story (not the men, as I was taught), I began to question things more deeply.
I also discovered paths in Judaism that didn’t just provide what Wicca gave me, but were the same bricks beneath my feet with a different name. Instead of a God and Goddess, there was God and the Shechinah, the counter-balance to his to brute force, the mercy encapsulating his hand of justice. The Wiccan Sabbats, largely celebrations of the changing seasons, were paralleled in the Jewish harvest festivals. Even the magic and divination I studied could be found within Kabbalah, Jewish mysticism.
Suddenly it seemed as though I had never been Pagan at all–I had simply been following a path within Judaism that I hadn’t had a name for.
Then, about four or five years ago, I took a class on world religions to satisfy one of my humanities requirements–and I took it willingly. After all, the abundance of faith traditions and world mythologies has always intrigued and fascinated me. But what I hadn’t been expecting was to finish the course with the feeling that if I hadn’t been Jewish, I would have certainly been Hindu–and maybe, I said, I had even been Hindu in a past life. How would I ever know, and one way or the other, would it even matter?
There was something about the richness of the spiritual teachings and the diversity among the many deities and the color and artistry and symbolism of the imagery and the practices of yoga that just felt right. Not so right as to supplant Judaism, but right.
Fast forward to today. Over the past six months, my ten-year practice of yoga–the postures, brief and unsuccessful forays into meditation, inconsistent practice with sustained interest in learning more–evolved into a something much, much more.
Now I’m not simply practicing the physical aspects, the asanas, the hattha yoga, but studying the sacred texts that inspired them and learning the history of this practice.
And as I bend forward in uttanasana or spread my arms in virabhadrasana, the light of yoga has settled inside my soul: yoga has become a part of my spiritual path.
One could argue it always has been, but now, at last, it has moved into focus.
Wizened by my excursions into Paganism, I wasn’t so quick to say this time that Judaism has lost its place in my life–if anything, it seems more as if yoga, and perhaps in this limited sense Hinduism as well, has taken its place next to Judaism, not atop it.
Outwardly, this seems problematic.
On the one hand, Paganism and Wicca are largely based in old European traditions, and as a European America, there’s no cultural conflict in adopting these practices. However, I am not of any Indian or South Asian descent, and so I’ve often struggled to discern what role yoga has in my life, and my life’s role in yoga, because of this.
(I’m still pursuing insight, but I spoke with one woman, herself Hindu, who told me my claim to yoga arises from the meaning I find in it. While this is reassuring and has given me some liberty to keep moving forward, it hardly feels like a final answer.)
And yet, except for a few close friends, the depth to which yoga has settled in my soul is not something I’ve shared with many: After all, how can a monotheistic Jew possibly find any benefit or betterment in the pursuit of polytheistic practices?
Well, ultimately, yoga itself is not strictly religious or polytheistic (although to deny its spiritual teachings is, I believe, foolish and misrepresents its history), so on some level there is no conflict until we start to think deeply enough. Regardless, I’ve felt as if I’m the only one in the world in this precarious position between Judaism and Hinduism.
So today was also YogaFest NC 2016, and I’ve eagerly awaited it for weeks. I attended a workshop on San Kalpa, the practice of using resolutions to achieve positive changes in our lives, and then a session on Sanskrit–the sacred language of yoga.
This latter session was of particular importance to me: I’m a lover of words, and recognizing the role Hebrew plays in relating to Judaism, any true pursuit of yoga demands that I understand at least how to correctly pronounce Sanskrit words.
Of course, I learned this much, but I also learned so much more–how, in a way, the Sanskrit letters are each spiritual mantras, and like the letters in Hebrew, are believed to posses unique supernatural powers. I also noticed, as we went along, occasional parallels between these two languages: shakti and shalom both mean peace and share a common syllable (and om itself is perceived to be the root of all things); and the sava of savasana (lit. “corpse pose”) is derived from Shiva, the manifestation of Brahma (the singular supreme power) known for having created the world, sounds identical to the Hebrew sheva, meaning seven, signifying the day of rest after God created the universe, and the root of the word shiva, in Hebrew referring to the period of mourning after a death. So savasana and shiva share, quite tangibly, a common origin.
I was talking with the instructor afterwards, and she told me she’s also Jewish, and so I shared some of my thoughts with her–about how Hinduism, and yoga in particular, seem to fulfill a spiritual yearning in me that Judaism hasn’t sated.
She smiled and said to me, “It’s all in Judaism, you just haven’t found it yet.”
And then she told me about some other resources I should look at, comparing Hindu and Jewish sacred texts, and I was stunned–amazed that I’m not the only one.
So maybe this new path I’m following isn’t one that has never been walked before, and knowing that brings more certainty to its permanence in my life, and more clarity for how these very different (but also very similar) traditions can be brought together into one.
Isn’t it ironic, then, that the root of the word yoga means “union”?