July 19, 2007
Judaism vs. ‘The Secret’
It's a best-selling book and DVD -- but it's not Jewish
This is how Los Angeles rabbis reacted to "The Secret," the best-selling DVD and book that has sold millions of copies and has all the trappings of a widespread religious/spiritual/self-help/New Age phenomenon.
These days, it seems like you can't go to a party or a dinner or even pass by a coffee shop without overhearing someone mention "The Secret" and the law of attraction, the main principle of "The Secret": "Everything that's coming into your life you are attracting into your life. And it's attracted to you by virtue of the images you're holding in your mind. It's what you're thinking. Whatever is going on in your mind you are attracting to you."
"The Secret" calls this the most powerful law in the universe, and, like the law of gravity, it is working whether or not you believe. The 90-minute DVD and 173-page book (which is the same as the DVD in written form) by Rhonda Byrne, tell how to use these principles "to bring joy to billions around the world." She interviewed 24 people -- philosophers, scientists, doctors, healers, spiritual leaders, financial consultants, entrepreneurs, metaphysicists and best-selling authors, like Jack Canfield ("Chicken Soup for the Soul") and John Gray ("Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus"), and came up with "The Secret," which promises that wealth, health, happiness and peace are all achievable -- if you follow the prescribed processes.
There are three basic steps: ask, believe, receive.
Ask "the universe" for what you want, believe and feel as if you already have it and be open to receiving it. That's it. These processes include expressing gratitude, having intention, being mindful and heeding your thoughts and words, because they are all-powerful. Many of these practices have long been advocated by healers, self-help gurus and religions -- especially Judaism.
I first started thinking about "The Secret" and Judaism on Passover, when my father related a sermon the rabbi had given in the synagogue. The rabbi had heard about the book and said some of the practices were found in Judaism, like gratitude.
Here's "The Secret" on gratitude: "Gratitude is a powerful process for shifting your energy and bringing more of what you want into your life. Be grateful for what you have, and you will attract more good things."
The rabbi pointed out how Jews practice gratitude on a daily basis. From our morning prayer of Modeh Ani -- thanking God for returning our soul -- to the blessings over food and the afternoon and evening prayers, gratitude has been an essential component of Jewish prayer for thousands of years.
At first, the rabbi's comments struck me as self-congratulatory Judaism -- what occurs when our religious leaders see a positive non-Jewish concept and show how Judaism did it first, thereby showing that Judaism has nothing new to learn from the outside world.
But as I began to read books like "The Secret" and "Ask and It Is Given: Learning to Manifest Your Desires" by Esther and Jerry Hicks, the 2005 more in-depth book upon much of which "The Secret" was originally based (although the two books' authors have since split), I began to wonder how our 4,000-year-old religion really fits into these new ideas.
Can these concepts be found in Judaism? Are they complementary to Judaism? Antithetical? Or completely irrelevant? And, given the newfound popularity of this notion among spiritual seekers, lost souls and even many Jews, could it be that Judaism has anything to learn from "The Secret?"
I took the movie to several Los Angeles rabbis of different denominations -- Orthodox, Conservative, Reconstructionist and New Chasidic -- hoping they could help me discover what Judaism has to say about this phenomenon, if anything -- where the similarities and differences are. I expected a variety of opinions -- the usual responses, with the more traditional rabbis eschewing it, and the more New Age, modern rabbis embracing it.
Not so. While these rabbis often disagree on many issues, there is one thing they do agree upon: "The Secret" is not Jewish.
My first stop was the office of Rabbi Yitzchak Etshalom (photo), an Orthodox rabbi and teacher at YULA high school. Etshalom hadn't yet heard of "The Secret" or known of its impact, and he called the idea that you control the world through your thoughts "ridiculous."
"I thought that the premise was preposterous, and I thought anyone who would buy into it was gullible beyond repair," Etshalom said.
But when told of its popularity, he attributed the phenomenon to everything that is wrong with the modern era.
"It's the most narcissistic perspective I could imagine," he said "The notion that I can make things happen because I want them to happen is as infantile as it can get."
Judaism is particularly in opposition with the main notion of "The Secret," he said -- fulfilling your desires.
"Do you think that what you want is right for you?" he said. "There are so many places where our tradition advocates squelching your desires, not acting on your desires, recognizing that not everything you want is a good idea but to sublimate that will to a higher will."
However, there are some principles in the film that mirror Judaism, he said, such as the power of gratitude, the power of words and focusing on your intentions is the key to a meaningful life. But the difference between Judaism's concept of intention, or kavanah, differs from that of "The Secret."
"Kavanah means direction, and it means that you're directing your heart and mind and awareness toward God," Etshalom said.
Not toward yourself.
"To believe that it's all energy flowing within us and just by tapping into the right vibe is essentially saying, 'I am God.' I don't know of any more intense form of idolatry than someone calling themselves God," he said. "They're saying, 'I'm God, you're God, we're all God.' You're basically worshipping yourself. That's pretty distant from Judaism."
'The Secret' offers this 'visualization video'
One Jewish denomination does believe that God is everywhere, within all living creatures and the world around us, rather than a figure or being or force separate from ourselves. This notion is similar to what "The Secret" calls "The Universe" -- the place toward which all one's thoughts, prayers, meditation and asking should be directed. For example, "Reconstructionists believe in God, not necessarily as a distinct, separate being but that God is in everything, God is in all of life and in everything around us -- a tendency away from a separate mystical being," said Rabbi Judith HaLevy (photo) of the Malibu Jewish Center and Synagogue.
HaLevy had watched the movie before I brought it to her, and she thought some concepts in the film are in agreement with concepts in Judaism, such as that all our actions are for this world, not a world to come, echoing a concept in "The Secret," which says, "There is no blackboard in the sky."
Like does attract like, she said, agreeing with the law of attraction. "A mitzvah's reward is another mitzvah.... If you put out positive energy, you will attract positive things."
"But for what? The Jewish question is for what purpose? It's for the sake of the world," she said of the Jewish prescribed motive for doing mitzvot. "It's not so you will own more goods, but so you will expand God's works in the world and to do the work you're supposed to do to fulfill God's vision for the world."
HaLevy described herself as a "New-Age" rabbi.
"I emphasize rabbi because I'm more willing than others to experiment, to try and make things relevant, and I'm certainly interested in the mystical," she said.
But our mystical thought is grounded in thousands of years of tradition.
"'The Secret' takes these things and makes them superficial. It's like Madonna wearing a red string around her wrist. It's not wrong; you can make a case for red strings and whatever they sell in the Kabbalah Centre. It's not wrong. Underneath there are people who know what they're doing, but it's without a base to it," she said. "One day it's Kabbalah, another day it's Egyptology."
The days of Egyptology haven't hit us yet, so I called the Kabbalah Centre. Its publicist said they preferred not to comment on "The Secret" or "The Law of Attraction."
"You know Michael Berg's book is not about 'The Secret,'" the publicist said. Berg came out with a small book called, "The Secret," in 2002. But the Kabbalah Centre rabbi's book has a different secret: "The only way to achieve true joy and fulfillment is by being a being of sharing," it explains.
But still, the center's message is not so different from ideas found in books like "The Secret."
"'The Secret' is Kabbalah 101," said a longtime member who preferred not to give his name. Indeed, during Friday night services at the center, a woman talked about the power of dreams, thoughts and what we attract into our lives.
Without a rabbinic comment from the center, I turned to a self-described "modern-mystic" unaffiliated with the center, Orthodox Reb Mimi Feigelson (photo), mashpiah ruchanit (spiritual mentor) of the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies at the American Jewish University (formerly University of Judaism), who is versed in Kabbalah and mystical thought. Kabbalah and Jewish mystical studies have long offered many of the ideas found in "The Secret," she said.
"God created the world with words. The oral word is an external garment of the world of thought," she said. Moreover, even the idea in "The Secret" about the power of thought to heal oneself of disease can be found in Judaism. "In the mystical tradition, there is a correlation between our physical, emotional, intellectual and spiritual bodies, and as we evolve, those connections are more and more apparent," she said, noting that according to tradition, King Solomon had a book that correlated each illness to every mitzvah, and he could look at it and understand where the illness came from.
"It was buried, because healing became like a mathematical equation, not spiritual work," she said.
And as to our thoughts influencing our actions, she quoted the founder of Chassidut, the Ba'al Shem Tov, who said, "A person is where their thoughts are." The Talmud says a person doesn't even lift his or her finger in this world if it's not called upon in the higher world.
Similarly, the promise of "The Secret" to transform someone into a new person is also not unique.
"The whole notion of teshuva is that a person can be different from who they are," Feigelson said, using the Hebrew word for repentance, which is "the transformative element of every human being."
"So the fact that they're offering up this possibility of becoming a new person that you don't recognize, I don't think that's unique to their message -- there is nothing unique in what they're offering that's not been said," she said.
Nevertheless, from a Kabbalistic perspective, she faults as simplistic and solipsistic the notion in "The Secret" that you get what you put out in your thoughts and words.
"We're living in a somewhat fragmented and broken world. Instead of sanctifying the brokenness and trying to elevate the fractious part of our lives, they're trying to create a perfection, which isn't part of the human condition," she said. "I don't know what a perfect life is, and I don't know what ultimate happiness is -- I don't know where that is outside the service of God."
Clearly, I was wrong in assuming the mystically based rabbis would embrace "The Secret." But to my surprise, it was an open-minded Conservative rabbi who often challenges commonly held beliefs in Judaism that reacted most vehemently to "The Secret." Rabbi David Wolpe of Sinai Temple made headlines with his Passover sermon in 2001, when he suggested that the Exodus story is fictional. This year on Passover, he gave a speech about "The Secret."
In it, he said that his first reaction to hearing about the teachings of "The Secret" was that it was wrong. "Now I've watched it, and I think it's dangerous," he said in his sermon. Like the other rabbis, he faulted the "experts" and lambasted the video's concept for materialism and an inherent lack of community.
Wolpe also objected to the idea that we are responsible for bringing everything -- bad and good -- into our lives.
"So I just imagined this addlepated philosopher saying this to every one of the 6 million victims of the Shoah, every one of them: 'You brought the concentration camp into your life.' To every child starving in the Sudan, 'You brought hunger into your life,'" he said. ("Saturday Night Live" recently did a sketch on this, telling war victims that it was their fault.).
Obviously, he said, Judaism believes in the power of prayer.
"But this partial truth that positive thoughts and hope and prayer can change your world, that this positive truth is everything, is a lie."
Like Etshalom, Wolpe said this kind of thinking makes us into God: "And to make yourself into God is idolatry. Nothing less. It's worshipping an idol, except the idol is you."
Negative thoughts aren't always bad, either, he said, pointing out that seven of the Ten Commandments begin with "Thou Shall Not."
"Boy, you better have some negative thoughts if you want to make it through this world whole. If you never think you're bad, and you never think you're guilty, and you never think you're incompetent, and you never think you're foolish, and you never think you're shameful, I don't want to have anything to do with you. You scare me."
The reason "The Secret" is so dangerous, he said, is because it offers a simple solution. "Life is not simple. There is no single formula that will make you better, that will take away the difficulty and the pain and the shadows and the ideas and the reality.
"Don't we know that by now? We're Jews. We know that life is not easy, and anyone who promised to make life easier is a liar, and you shouldn't listen to them," he said.
Wolpe concluded his sermon by saying, if there were a secret in the world, he heard it from an Israeli cabdriver: "'Life is not picnic.' It's a struggle, and it's meant to be a struggle, and that's a good thing."
If "The Secret" and "The Law of Attraction" are a religion -- and by the millions of followers reading the books, watching the movies and taking the workshops, the movement resembles one -- then their "church" might be the Agape International Spiritual Center in Culver City.
Founded in 1986 by the Rev. Michael Beckwith (photo, left), Agape is not affiliated with any religion, although it acknowledges the leaders of major religions -- Buddha, Jesus, Moses, Mohammed -- as "prophets." It boasts 9,000 members, but since Beckwith appeared on "The Secret" DVD and on "Oprah" a number of times (Oprah Winfrey and Byrne attend the center), attendance at the three Sunday morning services there have grown.
The tony, multiethnic, multiage crowd on the weeks Beckwith is preaching (he sometimes travels, and guest speakers fill in for him) snakes around itself in the parking lot of the industrial complex, which is jammed with parked cars, cars searching for spots and tents offering hippie-style clothes for sale, as well as organic food and holistic services and classes.
There are three services, each incorporating seated, silent meditation; spirited song, and speeches. Beckwith, a charismatic black man with long braids pulled back in a ponytail, addressed in his speech on the day I was there much of the criticism about "The Secret." It turns out that Christian leaders have much against it as Jewish leaders do.
He described journalists, religious leaders and others coming to ask him questions about "The Secret" as always wanting to know the same thing: Can it really work? Can it really make you rich? Can it make you happy?
"They want to ask, 'Is it possible to use spiritual ideas to create prosperity in the marketplace,'" Beckwith said. And the answer he gave is, "No."
"You can't use spiritual practices for operational practices," he said, meaning that if you try to use "The Secret" just for material purposes, it probably won't work. "In our acquisitive society," he said, people are misreading "The Secret" as a get-rich-quick scheme.
But he doesn't mind, because, he believes "'The Secret' is a Trojan horse." People are attracted to it at first because they think it will bring material wealth, but then when they start practicing its principles -- meditation, gratitude, joy, faith -- they will begin to encounter true spiritual transformation, which is not always easy. Stuff will come up, he said. People might start thinking, "Hey, I didn't sign up for this. I thought life was to feel good all the time." But that's not at all what it's about, Beckwith said.
"This is not a feel-good religion." Once a person begins the process, he will discover God. "Let them think it's about a car -- it's about spiritual mobility."
"You are the spiritual image and likeness of God," he said. "The all-providing God is the only support system I need ... simply, we are here for God ... how great to know that God is all there is."
But that's not the message that is coming through from "The Secret," the rabbis I interviewed for this story said when I went back to them with Beckwith's explanations. The rabbis argue that despite Beckwith's teachings, the movie doesn't convey much spirituality.
"That's not what the presentation offered," Feigelson said. "It did not challenge one's spiritual integrity, did not challenge one's internal work. I heard an hour-and-quarter of promises of wealth, prosperity and health. And on that level, it's dangerous," she said, to promise health and prosperity and wealth in a world filled with poverty and illness."
Theologians, philosophers, scientists and journalists have been debating the principles behind works like "The Secret," and other science-of-the-mind concepts for years now, and perhaps as a religion writer, I'm not in a position to give answers. But after researching this phenomenon, I began to wonder why religious leaders are so fundamentally opposed to "The Secret." Considering that Jewish leaders have long been asking why Judaism is losing members and how Judaism can engage the next generation, then why aren't they also looking at what this next generation of Jews is attracted to and see what we can learn from it?
Do Jews flock to Buddhism, Taosim, the Kabbalah Centre and the Agape International Spiritual Center just for easy answers or because they simply want religion lite? Have they all been duped into a cult? Why are so many Jews so attracted to the New Age?
Having sampled services at the Agape and Kabbalah centers, I can hazard a guess.
First, these places offer some answers that address everyday life. They offer a way to navigate through the modern world, with all its complexities, worries, anxieties, suffering and pain. These places offer help in the way a therapist or a social worker might offer it -- but within a community of faith. The message of "The Secret" might be materialistic, but therein also lies its appeal: It speaks the modern language. It is practical.
Secondly, it is hopeful (some say "delusional"). The New Age offers a positive view of life -- for attaining love, happiness, riches, health, wealth and well-being.
Judaism offers some of the same things: the right way to live life within a community of faith. But for many people, it doesn't offer enough help navigating through day-to-day life, or when it does, perhaps some feel that it hasn't adapted enough to the modern world.
And for many, Judaism's message is too much about suffering and pain, victimization and helplessness, rather than hope, joy and happiness.
In other words, if you were going to boil each of the two visions down to a one-line philosophy, which would you rather choose: Wolpe's, "Life is no picnic" theory or "The Secret's" "Life can be absolutely phenomenal?"
For more information or to hear Rabbi Wolpe's sermon, visit http://www.sinaitemple.org. For more information on Agape, visit http://www.agapelive.com. To hear Reb Mimi's teachings, visit www.zieglerpodcasts.com.