July 19, 2007
Judaism vs. ‘The Secret’
It's a best-selling book and DVD -- but it's not Jewish
(Page 3 - Previous Page)"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."