I watched the documentary Kumare this weekend and I was struck by its portrayal of the development of a religious community and the search of people for meaning and fulfillment in their own lives. The movie follows the filmmaker as he morphs into an Indian Guru and plants himself in Phoenix, Arizona where he develops a coherent belief system and attracts followers. Throughout the movie he attempts to convey to his followers that they actually do not need a Guru and they can be their own spiritual teachers. I found myself waiting at the edge of my seat to see if and how he would reveal himself to his followers and if they would understand the message he was trying to teach them.
A particular aspect of the movie stood out to me and that is what I call the allure of otherness. A man with a long beard, exotic accent, flowing robes and a staff enters the mainstream American culture of Phoenix and becomes a beacon for the most assimilated people in the city. It is as if his otherness transmits an aura of authenticity, spiritual profundity and religious truth. One wonders how successful he would have been if he did not adopt the beard and robes and maintained his native New Jersey accent. His message would have remained the same but the external appearance around the message would have perhaps been too ‘normal’ to make the same impact.
I believe this phenomenon of the allure of otherness finds expression in faith communities throughout the spectrum. In the Jewish community I often wonder about the masses of assimilated Jews who support philanthropically and gravitate to the outreach organizations set up by the far right-wing segment of the Orthodox community. Kumare has made me pause and wonder what the effect of those heavily starched white shirts, black suits and wide brimmed black hats have on the success of their outreach efforts. Do the most assimilated and acculturated of the Jewish community find authenticity and the appearance of religious truth and validation by association with the otherness projected by the distinct counter-cultural dress of the organizers of those outreach fronts?
What does this allure of otherness say about the ability of the more culturally integrated segments of a religious community? Will the Modern Orthodox community ever be able to project the same aura of religious truth and spiritual profundity to the deeply assimilated members of the Jewish community? Will a religious message of living a life that is a conversation between tradition and the modern world ever be as attractive to the masses as the image of a world apart put forth by the otherness of the wide-brimmed black hat?
Kumare suggests there is an intoxicating power to otherness but the question remains as to its ability to maintain long term transformation and change in the lives of the people it impacts. To me the verdict is still out.