Dear Jew in the City-
On a recent trip to China I saw Shaolin Monks do all sorts of incredible feats – breaking wood and stone on their bodies and lying on swords. I was told that they do this with chi. Is there a Jewish idea of this? Did the Hasidic masters or other figures throughout Jewish history have the ability to channel such forces and how do we understand them?
Thanks for your questions. I would have to say, “no, there is not,” “no, they did not, and “we don’t,” respectively.
Oh, you want more than that? Okay, I’ll do my best but it’s not my area of expertise. (Honestly, I don’t know that it’s anybody’s area of expertise. I suspect that those who are well-versed in kabbalah know little about chi and vice versa.)
First off, let me just say that whether this is a real phenomenon or a trick is immaterial, so I won’t be opining as to how the Shaolin monks perform their feats. Note the prohibition against performing acts of sorcery. (There are actually several such prohibitions, separately forbidding a variety of acts including divination, necromancy and more.) Ramban (Nachmanides) ostensibly believed that sorcery can be real; there are spiritual forces that God built into creation, which some people know how to manipulate. Rambam (Maimonides), however, doesn’t believe in the possibility of magic at all – not even the magic seemingly performed by witches and sorcerers in the Bible. He believes that all sorcery is an attempt to trick people and is prohibited on that basis.
Please note that I didn’t say that the feats performed by the Shaolin monks are prohibited. What I said was that it doesn’t matter whether or not they’re what they appear to be. What’s permitted is permitted and what’s prohibited is prohibited, regardless of whether one is manipulating spiritual forces or pulling the wool over people’s eyes.
That being said, let’s look at what chi is. According to a web site dedicated specifically to this topic, “The existence of electromagnetic fields around every object in the world – known as an Aura – is a scientifically proven fact. The Chinese refer to this energy as ‘Chi’ (pronounced Chee), the vital life force energy of the Universe, present within every living thing.”
For starters, I question the assertion that the existence of an aura is a “scientifically proven fact.” Putting that claim aside, we are left with “vital life force energy … present within every living thing.” If that sounds like anything in Judaism, it’s the soul. But which soul?
There are a number of words in Hebrew for the spirit or soul, including ruach, neshama, nefesh, and more. “Nefesh” actually refers to the life force that all living things possess; human beings also possess other, higher forms of a soul. But is chi the same as nefesh? I only found one reference to the question, from Rabbi Yair Hoffman, who says no.
Rabbi Hoffman writes, “As far as (the) identification of qi or chi with an adaptive definition of nefesh – this identification is clearly not the authorial intent of Rashi in Vayikra 17:11.” Looking up the verse in question, I found that it says, “Because the soul (nefesh) of flesh is in the blood…,” on which Rashi comments that “every living creature is dependent on blood.” So I agree with Rabbi Hoffman: that doesn’t sound much like chi.
Incidental to this, Rabbi Hoffman addresses the contention that the “shadow of a shadow” said to be possessed by humans but not by demons (in Yevamos 122a) refers to an aura. Pischei Teshuvah (EH 17:49), not cited by Rabbi Hoffman, maintains that it refers a very long or particularly dark shadow. Even according to the dissenting opinions, Rabbi Hoffman says, there is no basis to conclude that it refers to an aura.
So we have briefly considered – and quickly rejected – the possible identification of chi and/or aura with Jewish concepts. Having dismissed these proposed identifications (which, incidentally, were suggested by the same individual), we are left without analogous Jewish concepts.
There is a concept of spiritual forces – both light and dark – as well as support for the idea that people can manipulate them or be manipulated by them. Additionally, people in other cultures may have spiritual keys that we lack. Genesis 25:6 tells us that Avraham gave gifts to his sons from Keturah (and possibly other wives) and sent these sons to the East. Rashi, citing the Talmud (Sanhedrin 91a) says that these “gifts” were the mystical names necessary to manipulate the spiritual “forces of impurity.”
“Forces of impurity” sounds bad but it doesn’t necessarily mean that the forces themselves are impure; after all, why would Avraham want to proliferate such secrets? Explanations of the term include that “forces of impurity” means forces that his descendants in the East could manipulate even in a state of ritual impurity, forces that would protect them from impurity, or forces that they could manipulate without utilizing the name of God.
I’m not suggesting that the Shaolin monks are necessarily utilizing whatever spiritual keys Avraham sent to the East. I’m just illustrating that there’s basis for the idea that other cultures may possess secrets we don’t, and that’s okay.
Rabbi Jack Abramowitz
JITC Educational Correspondent