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Cultivation and Conflict: Buddhist-Derived Meditation and Ethical Complexity among Israeli Jews



Change log


Mautner, Ori 


In Israel, the demand for Buddhist-derived meditation practices appears to be among the highest in the world, and such practices are currently being employed by a striking variety of Israelis. This dissertation relies on over 14 months of ethnographic fieldwork in Israel and the occupied West Bank. It examines the ways in which orthodox Jews on the one hand, and non-observant Jewish activists for solidarity with Palestinians on the other hand, use meditation techniques drawn from Buddhism for pursuing objectives that are central for them, respectively, as contemporary Israelis.

In the dissertation’s first part, I discuss orthodox Jewish meditators. I analyse the theological justifications they provide for practising Buddhist-derived meditation, and describe retreats and classes through which they learn such techniques, including the disputes and dilemmas this generates. Specifically, the first four chapters concern the themes of arriving at proximity to God through meditation, the tension between discipline and spontaneity, strategies for managing value conflicts, and senses of failure. Taken together, these chapters illustrate the complex ways in which the values of orthodoxy, spirituality and non-renunciation intersect with orthodox Jewish meditators’ self-fashioning projects.

In the second part, I address Engaged Dharma Israel (EDI) activists, who attempt to show solidarity with Palestinians living under Israeli military control by providing them with practical assistance. I illustrate how among EDI members, the same practices used by orthodox Jewish meditators are employed for quite different ends: cultivating cosmopolitan sensibilities and negotiating Israeli national belonging. Specifically, I focus on the relationship between EDI members’ self-cultivation project and two sets of opposing values they hold. The first set is friendliness (approaching others with a caring attitude) on the one hand, and resistance to injustice on the other. The second set is intimacy (experiencing self and other as interdependent) and autonomy (being self-directed and deciding to what extent to partake in difficult situations).

My dissertation contributes to the burgeoning field of the anthropology of ethics (which analyses people’s attempts to lead good lives comparatively), including to debates concerning encounters between disparate ethical traditions and the relationship between ethics and politics. It also contributes to the anthropology of religion, including to discussions of religious mediation. Primarily, however, I attempt to contribute to the anthropology of ethics by linking debates on self-cultivation with ones on values. Through addressing different types of Israeli meditators, I demonstrate that fundamental to self-fashioning projects is the complex ways in which they relate to people’s value considerations. Subsequently, I argue that the dominant model anthropologists utilize for comparing ethical projects—Michel Foucault’s discussion of ‘forms of subjectivation’—ought to be complemented by considering the tensions people experience between their different values. Finally, in the conclusion I propose that values, instead of being analysed atomistically, can only be properly understood in relation to other values that are held simultaneously to them in a specific ethical project.





Laidlaw, James


Social Anthropology, Ethics, Israel, Religion, Politics, Judaism, Buddhism, Vipassana, Insight meditation, Israel-Palestine, Values, Self-Cultivation


Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)

Awarding Institution

University of Cambridge