Maimonides would have approved of the pursuit of wellbeing

Yoga and other practices can be considered a branch of chochmah, universal wisdom


I lie on my back in shavasana or corpse pose after a gruelling series of downward dogs, planks, up dogs, sun salutations and forward bends. Sweat drips from my temples and my shorts and t-shirt cling to my body. The studio has been kept at an uncomfortable 38 degrees for the duration of the exercise. 

I am listening to the voice of the instructor, silky and American-accented, over the drumbeat of my own heart. “I now want you to close your eyes and relax,” she says. (I cheat by closing only one and a half eyes so I can see what’s going on around me.) The lights have been dimmed and smoke rises from the joss stick placed by the copper Buddha by the window. 

The other participants also lie on their backs, serene, their faces directed heavenward, closed. I tell myself to get back in the zone. The instructor reads from a tattered scrap of paper: “Like a chariot, the self is not different from its parts. Nor is it non-different, nor does it possess them. It is neither in the parts nor are the parts in it. It is neither the mere collection of the parts, nor their configuration.”

She falls silent, as the yoga music takes over — a mixture of delicate tinkles, birdcall and the gentle murmur of water flowing over rocks. I feel lighter for a moment on account of the words that have just been read, unburdened for a second from the weightiness of being (and the 50-page submissions I need to finish by the morning). I could have listened some more, but a moment later, the class is over. We wish each other “Namaste”, recognising the divine in each other, and then shuffle out making way for the next wave of yogis.

I leave feeling great, exercised, grounded, relaxed, spiritual even. I am a participant in the wellbeing revolution, the phenomenon we encounter daily in the media, our workplace, schools, even prisons — the emphasis on mindfulness, meditation, positive psychology, nature, exercise, clean eating, clean living, and happiness. 

These modern interests are not ideologically empty, but are frequently promoted as part of an outlook which has at its core a belief in the unity of all being, that the self is an illusion, and that the best way for us to live is non-judgmentally, empathetically and in the moment.  

In many respects, this feels like a new religion, a meeting of the worldly and spiritual, having its roots in the East but repackaged for the West, and now supported by the latest scientific thinking; it is embraced by people from all walks of life who find in these practices a secularised universal spirituality, free from extravagant myth and irrational dogma, which is also effective at reducing stress rather than increasing it (as organised religion is often criticised for doing). 

It also provides a buzz that for many far surprises that felt when engaging in traditional religion (think of the warm glow felt after meditation versus the weary sameness often experienced during Shabbat morning services).

No doubt many traditionalists will see these contemporary practices as superficial fads, but this is to ignore the fact that the question of wellbeing has always been fundamental to religion and viewed as an area of universal concern. 

The Bible calls this discipline chochmah, wisdom — which implies not just practical wisdom concerning physical health, but the path to obtain happiness, virtue and ultimately knowledge of God, and therefore a means to attain insight into the spiritual grounding of all existence. 

In the Bible whole works are dedicated to its pursuit and explication such as Proverbs and Ecclesiastes, which contains the sage advice that “there is nothing better for man than to enjoy his possessions, since that is his portion. For who can enable him to see what will happen afterward?” (3.22). In other words, live in the moment. 

Moreover, chochmah, unlike Torah, is not the preserve of Jews, but should be pursued wherever it is found: “Who has chochmah?” asks Ben Zoma, in Pirkei Avot, (Ethics of the Fathers), “He who learns from everyone”. Indeed the late Professor Saul Lieberman (1898-1983) identified Greek philosophical influence on this most Jewish of ethical texts. Chochmah then can be seen as humanity’s collective understanding of how to live well, fully and creatively. It is also an area, which demands constant updating to remain vibrant and relevant, but which unfortunately is often overlooked.

This approach is perhaps best encapsulated in the outlook of Maimonides, whose halachic code, the Mishneh Torah, focuses not just on black-letter law but on how to live well in the broadest sense. It includes (with the help of Aristotle, Galen and friends, ie the wisdom of the age) advice on how to obtain virtue, how many hours to sleep, when to exercise, what to eat, how often to have sex and how ultimately to achieve happiness. 

The model here is the prophets who meditated in seclusion in a state of joy “because prophecy cannot rest upon a person when he is sad or languid, but only when he is happy” (Yesodai Hatorah 1:3-4). And with that I wish you Namaste and Shabbat Shalom.

Dr Bor is currently teaching a course at the London School of Jewish Studies on “Is Judaism good for you? How Jews are meeting the wellbeing revolution”

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