Idol Worship Isn't a Relic of the Past

And future generations might shake their heads in disbelief at our own flagrant and heedless indulgence in real, literal idol worship.

A mass yoga class in Jerusalem on International Yoga Day in June 2018. Yonatan Sindel/FLASH90.

A mass yoga class in Jerusalem on International Yoga Day in June 2018. Yonatan Sindel/FLASH90.

Last Word
March 30 2020
About the author

Menachem Wecker, a freelance journalist based in Washington DC, covers art, culture, religion, and education for a variety of publications.

Follow your critic as you would someone with a treasure map, goes the advice attributed to Buddha in the Dhammapada. Or, as Proverbs 10:17 puts it: “He errs who ignores reproof.”

With this in mind, I begin by expressing gratitude to Alan Brill and Tara Isabella Burton for their critical responses to my essay on the practice of yoga by religious Jews. Luckily for me, after due consideration that will not require my bending myself into too-elaborate an intellectual pretzel—I remain confident in the soundness of my argument. I’ll take the two responses in order of their appearance.

Rabbi Brill, whose writings I’ve followed and admired for years, reminds us  that (a) yoga is not monolithic but multiform, that (b) in fact some scholars see it not as a product of Hinduism but as predating the arrival of Hinduism on the  scene, and that (c) Moses Maimonides’ 12th-century magnum opus, Guide of the Perplexed—a quintessential work of Jewish religious philosophy—may in places reflect the influence of Hindu and yoga texts read by him in translation.

Moreover, Brill writes, whatever specifically Hindu moral and religious elements may once have informed yoga, by the time the practice arrived in the modern West it “had been stripped of almost all of [them]” and in America was experienced as “generally a form of calisthenics.” This changed somewhat in the 1960s, when, for some, the practice reclaimed its prototypically Hindu roots even as, for others, it further distanced itself from those roots. The result by now, Brill concludes, is that “a given yoga class in the U.S. can fall anywhere on the spectrum.”

And that—i.e., “anywhere on the spectrum”—is where American Jews also fall. Of particular interest to Brill are three subgroups: those Jews for whom yoga provides “a spirituality they were often unable to find in Judaism”; those who “find deep, logical, and undeniable links [emphasis added] between yoga as an expansive spiritual practice and their own practice, or their own conception, of Judaism”; and those who, inspired by yoga, are drawn back to Judaism itself and in some cases impelled to fashion a “kosher” form of yoga.

Is it any wonder that, to my mind, this genial, circumspect, and assiduously non-judgmental catalog has all the makings of a highly slippery slope? Of course, Brill considers my own way of thinking to be a form of “Orthodox prohibitionism,” and therefore as suspect as its counterpart among some extreme Hindu “purists.” To this I reply that although I may indeed have been guilty of painting yoga itself with too broad a brush, I still maintain that the approach we take to the question of Judaism-and-yoga says everything about our final intellectual and religious destination.

Four sages entered paradise, recounts the Talmud (Hagigah 14b), using a Hebrew term for the potentially life-threatening “orchard” of mystical illumination. One of the four emerged from the experience unscathed. Of his three colleagues who weren’t so lucky, one was struck dead; one renounced his faith; and one went mad. Would-be Jewish adventurers in today’s orchard might comfort themselves with the thought that 25 percent of their cohort will return none the worse for wear. But what about the other three-quarters?

Yoga may present similar three-to-one odds—particularly in light of the renewed emphasis on its Hindu roots that some apostles and practitioners insist upon. What should a Jew do? It’s often said that a rabbi issuing a halakhic decision needs greater courage (or nerve) to rule permissively than restrictively. Given the potential seriousness of the sin here—involving as it does nothing less than violating the first two of the Ten Commandments—I find ample reason for caution.

“The greatest trick the devil ever pulled was convincing the world he didn’t exist,” said the 19th-century French poet Baudelaire (as did the character played by Kevin Spacey in The Usual Suspects). Jews run a lethal risk in assuming that idol worship is passé—something, supposedly, that we outgrew centuries ago along with surgical leeches and the flat-earth theory. Although I’m grateful to Brill for his response, and for his book on the subject, I still regard it as the height of folly to think that the gap between Judaism and yoga is non-existent or that religious Jewish yoga enthusiasts can cross it without hazardous repercussions.


This brings me to Tara Isabella Burton, who comes at me from the opposite direction. Agreeing with my thesis concerning the incompatibility of Judaism with yoga, she nevertheless believes that I’ve overlooked a graver concern—namely, that many Americans have “unbundled” their faith commitments altogether. Not only do more than a third of millennials, and about a quarter of the U.S. population, self-identify as religiously unaffiliated, but growing numbers of the nominally affiliated are, in her words, “perfectly comfortable assenting to spiritual beliefs and practices not simply external but at times downright contradictory to the orthodox tenets of their faith.”

These individuals, whom Burton dubs the religiously “remixed,” view faith, in personal terms, as something “customized to their own needs, wants, longings, and desires.” Rather than looking to scripture, clergy, or directly to God, they seek their own answers internally, by looking inward. If they can just understand themselves better, they’re convinced, they will achieve spiritual enlightenment. “Within remixed intuitionalist thinking,” she writes,

things that impose upon us from the outside—societal laws and mores, doctrines of orthodoxy that restrict our behavior—are inherently bad, pulling us away from an inner truth we already know.

Burton sees symptoms of this self-centeredness throughout contemporary culture, “repeated everywhere from the pervasive ‘wellness’ practice to the rise of progressive, activist-fueled occultism.”

Thus, where Alan Brill finds me wanting because I don’t look sufficiently far back to the origins of yoga or fully appreciate the multiple layers and flavors of its history, Burton finds me wanting because I look too far into the distant past for etiological clues while neglecting today’s dangerous “religion of the self.” And both make valid points. Surely there are Jewish yoga practitioners whose intentions are pure and consistent with their faith; just as surely, many people today, both old and young, embrace a personal theology whose primary service transpires at the altar of Narcissus.

Nevertheless, with repeated thanks to both respondents, I make bold to insist on my own point. My core contention, in my essay and here, is that much of contemporary yoga, a ritual practice to which many sophisticated, health-conscious, and religious Jews adhere more often than they go to synagogue, literally constitutes bowing to idols. It’s too easy, in our urban sophistication, to think about how foolish and primitive those Israelites must have been to forge a Golden Calf in the desert and to worship sticks and stones. It’s also too easy to think that the first two commandments revealed at Sinai are no-brainers, as vaporous and foreign today as are the laws in Exodus about my ox goring your ox.


I’m neither a rabbi nor a yogi, but I would encourage those considering yoga or already engaged in it not to dismiss out of hand the possibility of its radical incompatibility with the Torah, and to consult an authority they trust. My concern is that just as modern Jews marvel at their ancestors’ all too evident soft spot for Baal, future generations will shake their heads in shock and disbelief at our own flagrant and heedless indulgence in real, literal idol worship.

More about: American Jewry, Hinduism, Religion & Holidays, Yoga