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.