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Crouching tiger hidden rabbi

Who knew yoga, meditation and martial arts play an important part in modern Orthodoxy? Kari Colmans finds out more

Rabbi Daniel Gigi and certified rabbi, author Marcus J Freed,
Rabbi Daniel Gigi and certified rabbi, author Marcus J Freed,

Did you ever hear the one about the downward-facing rabbi? Us neither. But the punchline is: You’re behind with the rabbinic times. 

As more embrace a wide range of holistic and physical practises to further strengthen their spiritual connection to Judaism, progressive ideas about what constitutes kosher and non-kosher observance are coming to the fore. 

And while some naysayers might claim these mystic practices don’t sit right with Orthodox Judaism, there are a growing number of religious leaders who believe such things might just help bring you closer to God.

Orthodox Rabbi Daniel Gigi, author of 28 Jewelled Crown: A Comprehensive System of Jewish Meditation and Mysticism, practices a form of radical Chasidism and meditates daily. 

His wife, a trained yoga teacher, encouraged him to go to yeshiva after they married and lived in Israel, where they had a chance to explore different Jewish and Torah cultures. A short stint on a vegan farm (a far cry from his Golders Green home) then awakened in him a love for nature and meditation.

Orthodox Rabbi Daniel Gigi

As well as being a fervent collector of crystals, Rabbi Gigi leads online courses, group workshops and retreats in meditation, as well as offering well-being coaching. His brand of religious mindfulness, Maayan Hatum (meaning hidden spring, and refers to our ‘essential nature’) provides a centre for a more contemplative, reflective Judaism, and a forum for revitalising Jewish spiritual life through education, community, and offering spaces and opportunities for meditative practice.

As we talk over Zoom, Rabbi Gigi says that the meditation |he promotes is firmly rooted within traditional Judaism. 

“It comes from a book called the Book of Formation, Sefer Yetzirah,” he says. “This is the earliest book on the Kabbalah and is referenced in the Talmud. The meditation techniques from this book were developed by the German Pietists, the Hasidei Ashkenaz in the Middle Ages, and then by the Ecstatic School of Kabbalah headed by Abraham Abulafia in medieval Spain.” 

For Rabbi Gigi, meditation is Judaism. “Meditation is an attitude of the mind. When we bring awareness to our thoughts, speech and actions, we are practising mindfulness; the rabbis teach us to do just that. When you tap into your essential nature, you’ll find religion and spirituality there, because that’s where it resides.”

While he accepts there are countless opinions on whether or not meditation is compatible with Jewish life, he reasons these are all academic or philosophical positions that all fail to capture ‘the reality of a Jew meditating’. 

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“There is an Aramaic expression from the Talmud, puk hazi, which means ‘go out and see’. This expression is used to ground the discussion in objective reality and avoid endless debate. And in my experience, which is supported by research, meditation increases one’s spirituality. If it comes in a Jewish container, it opens one up to the Jewish experience.”

Seeking alternatives is something with which English Rabbi Dov Ber Cohen is also familiar. After graduating with a degree in philosophy from Manchester University, he travelled around Asia for six years where he took part in a number of silent meditation and yoga retreats as well as learning martial arts. 

Acquiring a black belt in the Korean martial art of taekwondo and a brown belt in Japanese aikido, the rabbi, who now lives in Israel and works for Aish Israel, also trained in shaolin, a form of Chinese kung fu. “I really understood that in order to live the most meaningful life I possibly could, I needed to push myself in the realms of mind, body and soul,” he says. “I realised very early on that mastering my own mind and discipline was the key to a happy and extraordinary life.”

Rabbi Dov Ber Cohen

After his time in Asia, Rabbi Dov Ber had planned a trip down the Amazon but ended up stopping in Israel for a few weeks, where he started to study Judaism. Before long he decided to commit his life to it, while still keeping up with his martial arts training. “King David had an army, and they practised martial arts,” he says. “It’s about self-control and discipline, not fighting. And even though I learnt much of my meditation in the east, the Torah is full of meditative traditions from the Talmud to Kabbalah. The only way to have a spiritual connection to God is to calm your own mind.”

While Rabbi Dov Ber refutes the label of ‘radical’, he does welcome the term ‘extreme’, in that he won’t settle for a “mediocre” life. “I would like to see everyone exploring ways to connect to God on a spiritual level,” he says. “As long as it’s kosher!”

Rabbi Dov Ber Cohen spent time in Asia

While he doesn’t agree, as some have said, that smoking cannabis brings you closer to God (“you’re just stoned!”) he feels that art and music also have the ability to enhance our connection to God. He would also encourage the teaching of martial arts alongside that of Torah to enable students to improve their character. People are yearning for a sense of self and happiness. Martial arts and mindfulness, alongside Torah study, can achieve this.”

Certified rabbi and author Marcus J Freed, who penned The Kosher Sutras: A Yogi’s Guide to the Torah and The Kabbalah Sutras: A Yogi’s Guide to Counting The Omer, among other books, is also president of the Jewish Yoga Network and has dedicated hundreds of pages and newspaper inches to explaining why yoga and Jewish study are so compatible. 

He feels that combining yoga with religious learning bridges the gap between study and spirituality, and that they work symbiotically, not exclusively.

For Marcus J Freed yoga is about self-empowerment

As we chat on the phone, he is very pleased with the success of his recent initiative, the world’s first international Jewish yoga seminar. For him, yoga is a story of self-empowerment; for people who have chosen to pursue the path of self-development and self-refinement. 

“There is a thirst for the blend of Jewish practice, yoga and meditation, since there are so many spiritual seekers who have not yet found their religious expression within a traditional framework. But you do not have to choose between one or the other. Jews by nature are spiritual seekers – yoga combines breath, soul, movement, philosophy and a powerful way to connect with God.” 

Looking to the future, Rabbi Gigi says he would love to see more meditation and yoga spaces accessible to the strictly Orthodox. “I hope meditation can be filtered with kedushah (holiness) and taharah (purification) and become a normal thing,” he says. Amen to that, Grasshopper. 

For more: Rabbi Gigi’s contemplative Judaism, www.maayanhatum.com or email: rabbigigi@maayanhatum.com; Rabbi Dov Ber Cohen at www.litmindfulness.org; Marcus J Freed at freedthinking.com

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