Does the animism of Marie Kondo’s popular KonMari method present any problems for observant Jews?
Thanks for your question. Let’s skip to the bottom line: you would be best served asking this of your own Orthodox rabbi, not a stranger on the Internet. Now let’s take the scenic route.
Let’s start with what animism is. Animism is a religious belief that even inanimate things have spiritual essences, so even rocks, trees and locations are in a sense “alive.” If you ask me, this belief is not consistent with Jewish theology.
Is cleaning guru Marie Kondo an animist? Apparently. She used to work in a Shinto shrine and Shinto includes animism, which she brings to her work. In her own words, “The first thing I do when I visit a client’s home is to greet their house. I kneel formally in the centre (sic) of the house and address the house in my mind… I ask for help in creating a space where the family can enjoy a happier life….”
A review of Kondo’s 2014 book says that Kondo tries to be “considerate of (objects’) wishes – to be folded neatly, to be stored without strain, to have a ‘home’ within your home, to be touched gently and lovingly, to be allowed to rest after a long day’s work.”
So Kondo wants us to think about how socks feel and to thank books before discarding them. I can’t speak for you but this is not consistent with Jewish religious philosophy as I understand it. (Before you leap to “so the challah shouldn’t be embarrassed,” I have written elsewhere not to take that so literally. That’s a moral lesson after the fact, not the actual reason we cover the challah at kiddush.)
Can one use Kondo’s cleaning methods without embracing her animism? I dunno. Maybe? It probably depends who you ask.
The issue at hand lies in Bamidbar (Numbers) 15:39, a verse familiar from Shema: v’lo sasuru acharei l’vavchem v’acharei eineichem asher atem zonim achareihem, “so you won’t stray after your hearts and your eyes, which can lead you astray.” The idea of not chasing after our hearts is not to pursue philosophies that are antithetical to Torah. This is because doing so confuses a person’s mind with potentially heretical ideas. If an idea that is not consistent with Torah – such as “What if such-and-such person is really God?” – should happen to pop into a person’s head, one is not supposed to pursue it. The appropriate course of action is to shut it down and focus one’s attention on Torah.
Such a dilemma can arise in a lot of places. One area, perhaps surprisingly to some, is yoga. As many people are into yoga a form of exercise cum meditation, many may not realize that yoga is a spiritual practice with its roots in Hinduism. The yoga poses, called asanas, are part of a greater philosophical school that is meant to include such things as abstention and liberation. When people say that whites doing yoga is cultural appropriation, they’re not wrong. Trying to extricate yoga from its Hindu roots is like claiming that the “Kabbalah” studied by celebrities is unrelated to Judaism. Watered down though it may be, the Kabbalah (or the yoga) is still a product of its origins.
Am I saying you can’t do yoga? Absolutely not! But for what it’s worth, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, the seventh Lubavitcher Rebbe, did say that – twice. In 1978, he wrote regarding “certain Oriental (sic) movements, such as transcendental meditation, yoga, guru and the like … inasmuch as these movements involve certain rites and rituals, they have been rightly regarded by rabbinic authorities as cults bordering on, and in some respects actual, idolatry.” I’m not saying that’s necessarily the only position but it’s definitely a not-unprecedented position.
There are actually a lot of areas where such an issue can arise. I once got into a knock-down, drag-out argument with a friend of my wife over The Secret. If you’re not familiar with it, it’s a book that popularizes “the law of attraction.” If you’re not familiar with that, it’s the idea of “ask, believe and receive,” i.e., since people and thoughts are both made of energy, a person can channel that energy to get the universe to give them stuff. This does not happen to agree with my understanding of how God, prayer or the universe operates. I don’t see it as compatible with Jewish philosophy and I told her as much, which she did not appreciate. (For the record, I’m pretty open-minded. You can read and believe whatever you like and it’s none of my business. But if you’re going to sit at my table and extol the virtues of a certain philosophy with which I disagree, there’s going to reach a point where I will express a dissenting opinion.)
More areas where this can question can arise include, but are not limited to, martial arts, Freemasonry, Harry Potter, alternative medicine, etc., etc., etc. You’re very likely to find different tolerance levels for these and other things based on underlying philosophies that may or may not actually be present in a given situation. And I can’t tell you which of these are okay and which aren’t. I have my own opinions but it’s not my place to decide for you, so ask your own Torah authority for guidance.
In the 19th century, Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch expressed the philosophy of Torah im derech eretz – Torah combined with the way of the world. The Mishna in Avos (2:2) uses this phrase to refer to Torah study combined with a profession. The concept was expanded by the Maharal (16th century) to include knowledge of the natural sciences and by Rav Hirsch, later still, to include broader secular learning as well as knowledge of the greater societies in which our Jewish communities reside. But this is limited to scientific and cultural literacy; it does not include embracing philosophies that may be antithetical to Torah.
The Midrash in Eicha Rabba (2:13) says, “If someone tells you that there is wisdom among the nations of the world, believe it.” (This is based Obadiah 1:8, which refers to the wise men of Edom.) However, the Midrash continues, “if someone tells you that there is Torah among the nations of the world, do not believe it.” (This is based on Lamentations 2:9, which refers to exile among other nations, where there is no Torah.) Scientific knowledge – like vaccinations – should be accepted regardless of the source. But what about acupuncture? Aromatherapy? Crystal healing? I don’t know. There’s a line drawn somewhere but everyone’s line may be in a different place. Practices based in other religions’ philosophies are problematic and extricating practices from their philosophies of origin may be tricky (if it can be done at all!). It’s for exactly this kind of thing that one should have a good religious figure to whom to turn for guidance.
Rabbi Jack Abramowitz
JITC Educational Correspondent